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46 minutes | 3 days ago
PseudoPod 741: Lukundoo
Author : Edward Lucas White Narrator : Phil Lunt Host : Alasdair Stuart Audio Producer : Chelsea Davis Discuss on Forums “Lukundoo” was first published in Weird Tales, November 1925 Lukundoo by Edward Lucas White “It stands to reason,” said Twombly, “that a man must accept the evidence of his own eyes, and when his eyes and ears agree, there can be no doubt. He has to believe what he has both seen and heard.” “Not always,” put in Singleton, softly. Every man turned towards Singleton. Twombly was standing on the hearth-rug, his back to the grate, his legs spread out, with his habitual air of dominating the room. Singleton, as usual, was as much as possible effaced in a corner. But when Singleton spoke he said something. We faced him in that flatteringly spontaneity of expectant silence which invites utterance. “I was thinking,” he said, after an interval, “of something I both saw and heard in Africa.” Now, if there was one thing we had found impossible it had been to elicit from Singleton anything definite about his African experiences. As with the Alpinist in the story, who could only tell that he went up and came down, the sum of Singleton”s revelations had been that he went there and came away. His words now riveted our attention at once. Twombly faded from the hearth-rug, but not one of us could ever recall having seen him go. The room readjusted itself, focused on Singleton, and there was some hasty and furtive lighting of fresh cigars. Singleton lit one also, but it went out immediately, and he never relit it. CHAPTER I We were in the Great Forest, exploring for pigmies. Van Rieten had a theory that the dwarfs found by Stanley and others were a mere cross-breed between ordinary Negroes and the real pigmies. He hoped to discover a race of men three feet tall at most, or shorter. We found no traces of any such beings. Natives were few, game scarce; food, except game, there was none; and the deepest, dankest, drippingest forest all about. We were the only novelty in the country, no native we met had even seen a white man before, most had never heard of white men. All of a sudden, late one afternoon, there came into our camp an Englishman, and pretty well used up he was, too. We had heard no rumour of him; he had not only heard of us but had made an amazing five-day march to reach us. His guide and two bearers were nearly as done up as he. Even though he was in tatters and had five days” beard on, you could see he was naturally dapper and neat and the sort of man to shave daily. He was small, but wiry. His face was the sort of British face from which emotion has been so carefully banished that a foreigner is apt to think the wearer of the face incapable of any sort of feeling; the kind of face which, if it has any expression at all, expresses principally the resolution to go through the world decorously, without intruding upon or annoying anyone. His name was Etcham. He introduced himself modestly, and ate with us so deliberately that we should never have suspected if our bearers had not had it from his bearers that he had had but three meals in the five days, and those small. After we had lit up he told us why he had come. “My chief is ve”y seedy,” he said between puffs. “He is bound to go out if he keeps this way. I thought perhaps…” He spoke quietly in a soft, even tone, but I could see little beads of sweat qozing out on his upper lip under his stubby moustache, and there was a tingled pressed emotion in his tone, a veiled eagerness m his eye, a palpitating inward solicitude in his demeanour that moved me at once. Van Rieten had no sentiment in him; if he was moved he did not show it. But he listened. I was surprised at that. He was just the man to refuse at once. But he listened to Etcham”s halting, diffident hints. He even asked questions. “Who is your chief ?” “Stone,” Etcham lisped. That electrified both of us. “Ralph Stone?” we ejaculated together. Etcham nodded. For some minutes Van Rieten and I were silent. Van Rieten had never seen him, but I had been a classmate of Stone”s, and Van Rieten and I had discussed him over many a camp-fire. We had heard of him two years before, south of Luebo in the Balunda country, which had been ringing with his theatrical strife against a Balunda witch-doctor, ending in the sorcerer”s complete discomfiture and the abasement of his tribe before Stone. They had even broken the fetish-man”s whistle and given Stone the pieces. It had been like the triumph of Elijah over the prophets of Baal, only more real to the Balunda. We had thought of Stone as far off, if still in Africa at all, and here he turned up ahead of us and probably forestalling our quest. CHAPTER II Etcham”s naming of Stone brought back to us all his tantalizing story, his fascinating parents, their tragic death; the brilliance of his college days; the dazzle of his millions; the promise of his young manhood; his wide notoriety, so nearly real fame; his romantic elopement with the meteoric authoress whose sudden cascade of fiction had made her so great a name so young, whose beauty and charm were so much heralded : the frightful scandal of the breach-of-promise suit that followed; his bride”s devotion through it all; their sudden quarrel after it was all over; their divorce; the too much advertised announcement of his approaching marriage to the plaintiff in the breach-of-promise suit; his precipitate remarriage to his divorced bride; their second quarrel and second divorce; his departure from his native land; his advent in the dark continent. The sense of all this rushed over me and I believed Van Rieten felt it, too, as he sat silent. Then he asked: “Where is Werner?” “Dead,” said Etcham. “He died before I joined Stone.” “You were not with Stone above Luebo?” “No,” said Etcham, “I joined him at Stanley Falls.” “Who is with him?” Van Rieten asked. “Only his Zanzibar servants and the bearersI Etcham replied. “What sort of bearers ?” Van Rieten demanded. “Mang-Battu men,” Etcham responded simply. Now that impressed both Van Rieten and myself greatly. It bore out Stone”s reputation as a notable leader of men. For up to that time no one had been able to use Mang-Battu as bearers outside of their own country, or to hold them for long or difficult expeditions. “Were you long among the Mang-Battu?” was Van Rieten”s next question. “Some weeks,” said Etcham. “Stone was interested in them and made up a fair-sized vocabulary of their words and phrases. He had a theory that they are an offshoot of the Balunda and he found much confirmation in their customs.” “What do you live on ?” Van Rieten inquired. “Game, mostly,” Etcham lisped. “How long has Stone been laid up?” Van Rieten next asked. “More than a month,” Etcham answered. “And you have been hunting for the camp ?” Van Rieten exclaimed. Etcham”s face, burnt and flayed as it was, showed a flush. “I missed some easy shots,” he admitted ruefully. “I”ve not felt ve”y fit myself.” “What”s the matter with your chief?” Van Rieten inquired. “Something like carbuncles,” Etcham replied. “He ought to get over a carbuncle or two,” Van Rieten declared. “They are not carbuncles,” Etcham explained. “Nor one or two. He has had dozens, sometimes five at once. If they had been carbuncles he would have been dead long ago. But in some ways they are not so bad, though in others they are worse.” “How do you mean ?” Van Rieten queried. “Well,” Etcham hesitated, “they do not seem to inflame so deep nor so wide as carbuncles, nor to be so painful, nor to cause so much fever. But then they seem to be part of a disease that affects his mind. He let me help him dress the first, but the others he has hidden most carefully, from me and from the men. He keeps to his tent when they puff up, and will not let me change the dressings or be with him at all.” “Have you plenty of dressings ?” Van Rieten asked. “We have some,” said Etcham doubtfully. “But he won”t use them; he washes out the dressings and uses them over and over.” “How is he treating the swellings?” Van Rieten inquired. “He slices them off clear down to flesh level, with his razor.” “What?” Van Rieten shouted. Etcham made no answer but looked him steadily in the eyes. “I beg pardon,” Van Rieten hastened to say. “You startled me. They can”t be carbuncles. He”d have been dead long ago.” “I thought I had said they are not carbuncles,” Etcham lisped. “But the man must be crazy!” Van Rieten exclaimed. “Just so,” said Etcham. “He is beyond my advice or control.” “How many has he treated that way?” Van Rieten demanded. “Two, to my knowledge,” Etcham said. “Two?” Van Rieten queried. Etcham flushed again. “I saw him,” he confessed, “through a crack in the hut. I felt impelled to keep watch on him, as if he was not responsible.” “I should think not,” Van Rieten agreed. “And you saw him do that twice?” “I conjecture,” said Etcham, “that he did the like with all the rest.” “How many has he had ?” Van Rieten asked. “Dozens,” Etcham lisped. “Does he eat?” Van Rieten inquired. “Like a wolf,” said Etcham. “More than any two bearers.” “Can he walk?” Van Rieten asked. “He crawls a bit, groaning,” said Etcham simply. “Little fever, you say,” Van Rieten ruminated. “Enough and too much,” Etcham declared. “Has he been delirious ?” Van Rieten asked. “Only twice,” Etcham replied; “once when the first swelling broke, and once later. He would not let anyone come near him then. But we could hear him talking, talking steadily, and it scared the natives.” “Was he talking their patter in delirium ?” Van Rieten demanded. “No,” said Etcham, “but he was talking some similar lingo. Hamed Burghash said he was talking Balunda. I know too little Balunda. I do not learn languages readily. Stone learned more Mang-Battu in a week than I could have learned in a year. But I seemed to hear words like Mang-Battu words. Anyhow the Mang-Battu bearers were scared.” “Scared?” Van Rieten repeated, questioningly. “So were the Zanzibar men, even Hamed Burghash, and so was I,” said Etcham, “only for a different reason. He talked in two voices.” “In two voices?” Van Rieten reflected. “Yes,” said Etcham, more excitedly than he had yet spoken. “In two voices, like a conversation. One was his own, one a small, thin, bleaty voice like nothing I ever heard. I seemed to make out, among the sounds the deep voice made, something like Mang-Battu words I knew, as nedru metababa. and nedo, their terms for ‘head’, ‘shoulder’, ‘thigh’, and perhaps kudra and nekere (‘speak’ and ‘whistle’); and among the noises of the shrill voice matomipa, angunzi and kamomami (‘kill’, ‘death’, and ‘hate’). Hamed Burghash said he also heard those words. He knew Mang-Battu far better than I.” “What did the bearers say?” Van Rieten asked. “They said, ‘Lukundoo, Lukundoo!’ “ Etcham replied. “I did not know that word; Hamed Burghash said it was Mang-Battu for ‘leopard’.” “It”s Mang-Battu for ‘witchcraft’,” said Van Rieten. “I don”t wonder they thought so,” said Etcham. “It was enough to make one believe in sorcery to listen to those two voices.” “One voice answering the other?” Van Rieten asked perfunctorily. Etcham”s face went grey under his tan. “Sometimes both at once,” he answered huskily. “Both at once!” Van Rieten ejaculated. “It sounded that way to the men, too,” said Etchaxn. “And that was not all.” He stopped and looked helplessly at us for a moment. “Could a man talk and whistle at the same time ?” he asked. “How do you mean ?” Van Rieten queried. “We could hear Stone talking away, his big, deep-chested baritone rumbling away, and through it all we could hear a high, shrill whistle, the oddest, wheezy sound. You know, no matter how shrilly a grown man may whistle, the note has a different quality from the whistle of a boy or a woman or a little girl. They sound more treble, somehow. Well, if you can imagine the smallest girl who could whistle keeping it up tunelessly right along, that whisde was like that, only even more piercing, and it sounded right through Stone”s bass tones.” “And you didn”t go to him?” Van Rieten cried. “He is not given to threats,” Etcham disclaimed. “But he had threatened not volubly, nor like a sick man, bu, quietly and firmly, that if any man of us (he lumped me in with the men), came near him while he was in his trouble, that man should die. And it was not so much his words as his manner. It was like a monarch commanding respected privacy for a death-bed. One simply could not transgress.” “I see,” said Van Rieten shortly. “He”s ve”y seedy,” Etcham repeated helplessly. “I thought perhaps…” His absorbing affection for Stone, his real love for him, shone out through his envelope of conventional training. Worship of Stone was plainly his master passion. Like many competent men, Van Rieten had a streak of hard selfishness in him. It came to the surface then. He said we carried our lives in our hands from day to day just as genuinely as Stone; that he did not forget the ties of blood and calling between any two explorers, but that there was no sense in imperilling one party for a very problematical benefit to a man probably beyond any help; that it was enough of a task to hunt for one party: that if the two were united, pro-viding food would be more than doubly difficult; tha.the risk of starvation was too great. Deflecting our march seven full days” journey (he complimented Etcham on his marching powers) might ruin our expedition entirely. CHAPTER III Van Rieten had logic on his side and he had a way with him. Etcham sat there apologetic and deferential, like a fourth-form schoolboy before a head master. Van Rieten wound up. “I am after pigmies, at the risk of my life. After pigmies I go.” “Perhaps, then, these will interest you,” said Etcham, very quietly. He took two objects out of the sidepocket of his blouse, and handed them to Van Rieten. They were round, bigger than big plums, and smaller than small peaches, about the right size to enclose in an average hand. They were black, and at first I did not see what they were. “Pigmies!” Van Rieten exclaimed. “Pigmies, indeed ! Why, they wouldn”t be two feet high! Do you mean to claim that these are adult heads ?” “I claim nothing,” Etcham answered evenly. “You can see for yourself.” Van Rieten passed one of the heads to me. The sun was just setting and I examined it closely. A dried head it was, perfectly preserved, and the flesh as hard as Argentine jerked beef. A bit of a vertebra stuck out where the muscles of the vanished neck had Shrivelled into folds. The puny chin was sharp on a projecting jaw, the minute teeth white and even between the retracted lips, the tiny nose was flat, the little forehead retreating, there were inconsiderable clumps of stunted wool on the Lilliputian cranium. There was nothing babyish, childish or youthful about the head, rather it was mature to senility. “Where did these come from ?” Van Rieten inquired. “I do not know,” Etcham replied precisely. “I found them among Stone”s effects while rummaging for medicines or drugs or anything that could help me to help him. I do not know where he got them. But I”ll swear he did not have them when we entered this district.” “Are you sure?” Van Rieten queried, his eyes big and fixed on Etcham”s. “Ve”y sure,” lisped Etcham. “But how could he have come by them without your knowledge ?” Van Rieten demurred. “Sometimes we were apart ten days at a time hunting,” said Etcham. “Stone is not a talking man. He gave me no account of his doings and Hamed Burghash keeps a still tongue and a tight hold on the men.” “You have examined these heads?” Van Rieten asked. “Minutely,” said Etcham. Van Rieten took out his notebook. He was a methodical chap. He tore out a leaf, folded it and divided it equally into three pieces. He gave one to me and one to Etcham. “Just for a test of my impressions,” he said, “I want each of us to write separately just what he is most reminded of by these heads. Then I want to compare the writings.” I handed Etcham a pencil and he wrote. Then he handed the pencil back to me and I wrote. “Read the three,” said Van Rieten, handing me his piece. Van Rieten had written: “An old Balunda witch-doctor.” Etcham had written: “An old Mang-Battu fetish-man.” I had written: “An old Katongo magician.” “There!” Van Rieten exclaimed. “Look at that! There is nothing Wagabi or Batwa or Wambuttu or Wabotu about these heads. Nor anything pigmy either.” “I thought as much,” said Etcham. “And you say he did not have them before ?” “To a certainty he did not,” Etcham asserted. “It is worth following up,” said Van Rieten. “I”ll go with you. And first of all, I”ll do my best to save Stone.” He put out his hand and Etcham clasped it silently. He was grateful all over. CHAPTER IV Nothing but Etcham”s fever of solicitude could have taken him in five days over the track. It took him eight days to retrace with full knowledge of it and our party to help. We could not have done it in seven, and Etcham urged us on, in a repressed fury of anxiety, no mere fever of duty to his chief, but a real ardour of devotion, a glow of personal adoration, for Stone which blazed under his dry conventional exterior and showed in spite of him. We found Stone well cared for. Etcham had seen to a good, high thorn zareeba round the camp, the huts were well built and thatched, and Stone”s was as good as their resources would permit. Hamed Burghash was not named after two Seyyids for nothing. He had in him the making of a sultan. He had kept the Mang-Battu together, not a man had slipped off, and he had kept them in order. Also he was a deft nurse and a faithful servant. The two other Zanzibaris had done some creditable hunting. Though all were hungry, the camp was far from starvation. Stone was on a canvas cot and there was a sort of collapsible camp-stool-table, like a Turkish tabouret, by the cot. It had a water-bottle and some vials on it and Stone”s watch, also his razor in its case. Stone was clean and not emaciated, but he was far gone; not unconscious, but in a daze; past commanding or resisting anyone. He did not seem to see us enter or to know we were there. I should have recognized him anywhere. Hi, boyish dash and grace had vanished utterly, of course. But his head was even more leonine; his hair was still abundant, yellow and wavy; the close, crisped blond beard he had grown during his illness did not alter him. He was big and big-chested yet. His eyes were dull and he mumbled and babbled mere meaningless syllables, not words. Etcham helped Van Rieten to uncover him, and look him over. He was in good muscle for a man so long bedridden. There were no scars on him except about his knees, shoulders and chest. On each knee and above it he had a full score of roundish cicatrices, and a dozen or more on each shoulder, all in front. Two or three were open wounds, and four or five barely healed. He had no fresh swellings, except two, one on each side, on his pectoral muscles, the one on the left being higher up and farther out than the other. They did not look like boils or carbuncles, but as if something blunt and hard were being pushed up through the fairly healthy flesh and skin, not much inflamed. “I should not lance those,” said Van Rieten, and Etcham assented. They made Stone as comfortable as they could, and just before sunset we looked in at him again. He was lying on his back, and his chest showed big and massive yet, but he lay as if in a stupor. We left Etcham with him and went into the next hut, which Etcham had resigned to us. The jungle noises were no different there than anywhere else for months past, and I was soon fast asleep. CHAPTER V Sometime in the pitch dark I found myself awake and listening. I could hear two voices, one Stone”s, the other sibilant and wheezy. I knew Stone”s voice after all the years that had passed since I heard it last. The other was like nothing I remembered. It had less volume than the wail of a new-born baby, yet there was an insistent carrying power to it, like the shrilling of an insect. As I listened I heard Van Rieten breathing near me in the dark, then he heard me and realized that I was listening, too. Like Etcham I knew little Balunda, but I could make out a word or two. The voices alternated with intervals of silence between. Then suddenly both sounded at once and fast. Stone”s baritone basso, full as if he were in perfect health, and that incredibly stridulous falsetto, both jabbering at once like the voices of two people quarrelling and trying to talk each other down. “I can”t stand this,” said Van Rieten. “Let”s have a look at him,” He had one of those cylindrical electric night-candles. He fumbled about for it, touched the button and beckoned me to come with him. Outside of the hut he motioned me to stand still, and instinctively turned off the light, as if seeing made listening difficult. Except for a faint glow from the embers of the bearers” fire we were in complete darkness, little starlight struggled through the trees, the river made but a faint murmuring. We could hear the two voices together and then suddenly the creaking voice changed into a razor-edged, slicing whistle, indescribably cutting, continuing right through Stone”s grumbling torrent of croaking words. “Good God! “ exclaimed Van Rieten. Abruptly he turned on the light. We found Etcham utterly asleep, exhausted by his long anxiety and the exertions of his phenomenal march and relaxed completely now that the load was in a sense shifted from his shoulders to Van Rieten”s. Even the light on his face did not wake him. The whistle had ceased and the two voices now sounded together. Both came from Stone”s cot, where the concentrated white ray showed him lying just as we had left him, except that he had tossed his arms above his head and had tom the coverings and bandages from his chest. The swelling on his right breast had broken. Van Rieten aimed the centre line of the light at it and we saw it plainly. From his flesh, grown out of it, there protruded a head, such a head as the dried specimens Etcham had shown us, as if it were a miniature of the head of a Balunda fetish-man. It was black, shining black as the blackest African skin; it rolled the whites of its wicked, wee eyes and showed its microscopic teeth between lips repulsively negroid in their red fullness, even in so diminutive a face. It had crisp, fuzzy wool on its minikin skull, it turned malignantly from side to side and chittered incessantly in that inconceivable falsetto. Stone babbled brokenly against its patter. Van Rieten turned from Stone and waked Etcham, with some difficulty. When he was awake and saw it all, Etcham stared and said not one word. “You saw him slice off two swellings?” Van Rieten asked. Etcham nodded, chokingly. “Did he bleed much?” Van Rieten demanded. “Very little,” Etcham replied. “You hold his arms,” said Van Rieten to Etcham. He took up Stone”s razor and handed me the light. Stone showed no sign of seeing the light or of knowing we were there. But the little head mewled and screeched at us. Van Rieten”s hand was steady, and the sweep of the razor even and true. Stone bled amazingly little and Van Rieten dressed the wound as if it had been a bruise or scrape. Stone had stopped talking the instant the excrescent head was severed. Van Rieten did all that could be done for Stone and then fairly grabbed the light from me. Snatching up a gun he scanned the ground by the cot and brought the butt down once and twice, viciously. We went back to our hut, but I doubt if I slept. CHAPTER VI Next day, near noon, in broad daylight, we heard the two voices from Stone”s hut. We found Etcham dropped asleep by his charge. The swelling on the left had broken, and just such another head was there miauling and spluttering. Etcham woke up and the three of us stood there and glared. Stone interjected hoarse vocables into the tinkling gurgle of the portent”s utterance. Van Rieten stepped forward, took up Stone”s razor and knelt down by the cot. The atomy of a head squealed a wheezy snarl at him. Then suddenly Stone spoke English. “Who are you with my razor ?” Van Rieten started back and stood up. Stone”s eyes were clear now and bright, they roved about the hut “The end,” he said, “I recognize the end. I seem to see Etcham, as if in life. But Singleton! Ah, Singleton! Ghosts of my boyhood come to watch me pass! And you, strange spectre with the black beard and my razor! Aroint ye all !” “I”m no ghost, Stone,” I managed to say. “I”m alive. So are Etcham and Van Rieten. We are here to help you.” “Van Rieten!” he exclaimed. “My work passes on to a better man. Luck go with you, Van Rieten.” Van Rieten went nearer to him. “Just hold still a moment, old man,” he said soothingly. “It will be only one twinge.” “I”ve held still for many such twinges,” Stone answered quite distinctly. “Let me be. Let me die in my own way. The hydra was nothing to this. You can cut off ten, a hundred, a thousand heads, but the curse you cannot cut off, or take off. What”s soaked into the bone won”t come out of the flesh, any more than what”s bred there. Don”t hack me any more. Promise! “ His voice had all the old commanding tone of his boyhood and it swayed Van Rieten as it always had swayed everybody. “I promise,” said Van Rieten. Almost as he said the word Stone”s eyes filmed again. Then we three sat about Stone and watched that hideous, gibbering prodigy grow up out of Stone”s flesh, till two horrid, spindling little black arms disengaged themselves. The infinitesimal nails were perfect to the barely perceptible moon at the quick, the pink spoton the palm was horridly natural. These arms gesticulated and the right plucked towards Stone”s blond beard. “I can”t stand this,” Van Rieten exclaimed and took up the razor again. Instantly Stone”s eyes opened, hard and glittering. Van Rieten break his word?” he enunciated slowly. “Never! “ “But we must help you,” Van Rieten gasped. “I am past all help and all hurting,” said Stone. This is my hour. This curse is not put on me; it grew out of me, like this horror here. Even now I go.” His eyes closed and we stood helpless, the adherent figure spouting shrill sentences. In a moment Stone spoke again. “You speak all tongues ? “ he asked quickly. And the emergent minikin replied in sudden English: Tea, verily, all that you speak,” putting out its microscopic tongue, writhing its lips and wagging its head from side to side. We could see the thready ribs on its exiguous flanks heave as if the thing breathed. “Has she forgiven me ?” Stone asked in a muffled strangle. “Not while the stars shine on Lake Ponchartrain will she forgive.” And then Stone, all with one motion, wrenched himself over on his side. The next instant he was dead. When Singleton”s voice ceased the room was hushed for a space. We could hear each other breathing. Twombly, the tactless, broke the silence. “I presume,” he said, “you cut off the little minikin and brought it home in alcohol.” Singleton turned on him a stem countenance. “We buried Stone,” he said, “unmutilated as he died.” “But,” said the unconscionable Twombly, “the whole thing is incredible.” Singleton stiffened. “I did not expect you to believe it,” he said: “I began by saying that although I heard and saw it, when I look back on it I cannot credit it myself.” The post PseudoPod 741: Lukundoo appeared first on PseudoPod.
37 minutes | 10 days ago
PseudoPod 740: Kecksies
Author : Marjorie Bowen Narrator : Paul S. Jenkins Host : Alex Hofelich Audio Producer : Chelsea Davis Discuss on Forums “Kecksies” was first published in Regent Magazine, January 25, 1925 Kecksies by Marjorie Bowen Two young esquires were riding from Canterbury, jolly and drunk, they shouted and trolled and rolled in their saddles as they followed the winding road across the downs. A dim sky was overhead and shut in the wide expanse of open country that one side stretched to the sea and the other to the Kentish Weald. The primroses grew in thick posies in the ditches, the hedges were full of fresh hawthorn green, and the new grey leaves of eglantine and honeysuckle, the long boughs of ash with the hard black buds, and the wand-like shoots of sallow willow hung with catkins and the smaller red tassels of the nut and birch; little the two young men heeded of any of these things, for they were in their own country that was thrice familiar; but Nick Bateup blinked across to the distant purple hills, and cursed the gathering rain. “Ten miles more of the open,” he muttered, “and a great storm blackening upon us.” Young Crediton who was more full of wine, laughed drowsily. “We’ll lie at a cottage on the way, Nick—think you I’ve never a tenant who’ll let me share board and bed?” He maundered into singing, “There’s a light in the old mill, Where the witch weaves her charms; But dark is the chamber, Where you sleep in my arms. Now came you by magic, by trick or by spell, I have you and hold you, And love you right well!” The clouds overtook them like an advancing army; the wayside green looked livid under the purplish threat of the heavens, and the birds were all still and silent. “Split me if I’ll be soaked,” muttered young Bateup. “Knock up one of these boors of thine, Ned—but damn me if I see as much as hut or barn!” “We come to Banells farm soon, or have we passed it?” answered the other confusedly. “What’s the pother? A bold bird as thou art, and scared of a drop of rain?” “My lungs are not as lusty as thine,” replied Bateup, who was indeed of a delicate build and more carefully dressed in greatcoat and muffler. “But thy throat is as wide!” laughed Crediton, “and God help you, you are muffled like an old woman—and as drunk as a shorn parrot.” “Tra la la, my sweeting, Tra la la, my May, If now I miss the meeting I’ll come some other day.” His companion took no notice of this nonsense, but with as much keenness as his muddled faculties would allow, was looking out for some shelter, for he retained sufficient perception to enable him to mark the violence of the approaching storm and the loneliness of the vast stretch of country where the only human habitations appeared to be some few poor cottages, far distant in the fields. He lost his good-humor, and as the first drops of stinging cold rain began to fall, he cursed freely, using the terms common to the pot-houses where he had intoxicated himself on the way from Canterbury. Urging their tired horses, they came on to the top of the little hill they ascended; immediately before them was the silver ashen skeleton of a blasted oak, polished like worn bone standing over a small pool of stagnant water (for there had been little rain and much east wind), where a few shivering ewes crouched together from the oncoming storm. Just beyond this, rising out of the bare field, was a humble cottage of black timber and white plaster with a deep thatched roof. For the rest, the crest of the hill was covered by a hazel copse and then dipped lonely again to the clouded lower levels that now began to slope into the marsh. “This will shelter us, Nick,” cried Crediton. “‘Tis a foul place and the boors have a foul reputation,” objected the lord of the manor. “There are those who swear to seeing the Devil’s own phiz leer from Goody Boyle’s windows—but anything to please thee and thy weak chest.” They staggered from their horses, knocked open the rotting gate and leading the beasts across the hard dry grazing field, knocked with their whips at the small door of the cottage. The grey sheep under the grey tree looked at them and bleated faintly; the rain began to fall, like straight yet broken darts out of the sombre clouds. The door was opened by a woman very neatly dressed, with large scrubbed hands, who looked at them with fear and displeasure; for if her reputation was bad, theirs was no better; the lord of the manor was a known roysterer and wild liver, and spent his idleness in rakish expeditions with Sir Nicholas Bateup from Bodiam, who was easily squandering a fine property. Neither was believed to be free of bloodshed, and as for honor, they were as stripped of that as the blasted tree by the lonely pool was stripped of leaves. Besides, they were both, now, as usual, drunk. “We want shelter, Goody Boyle,” cried Crediton, pushing his way in as he threw her his reins. “Get the horses into the barn.” The woman could not deny the man who could make her homeless in a second; she shouted hoarsely an inarticulate name, and a loutish boy came and took the horses, while the two young men stumbled into the cottage which they filled and dwarfed with their splendor. Edward Crediton had been a fine young man, and though he was marred with insolence and excess, he still made a magnificent appearance, with his full blunt features, his warm coloring, the fair hair rolled and curled and all his bravery of blue broadcloth, buckskin breeches, foreign lace, top boots, French sword and gold rings and watch chains. Sir Nicholas Bateup was darker and more effeminate, having a cast of weakness in his constitution that betrayed itself in his face; but his dress was splendid to the point of foppishness and his manners even more arrogant and imposing. Of the two he had the more evil repute; he was unwed and therefore there was no check upon his mischief, whereas Crediton had a young wife whom he loved after his fashion, who checked some of his doings, softened others, and stayed very faithful to him and adored him still, after five years of a wretched marriage, as is the manner of some women. The rain came down with slashing severity; the little cottage panes were blotted with water. Goody Boyle put logs on the fire and urged them with the bellows. It was a gaunt white room with nothing in it but a few wooden stools, a table and an eel-catcher’s prong. On the table were two large fair wax candles. “What are these for, Goody?” asked Crediton. “For the dead, sir.” “You’ve dead in the house?” cried Sir Nicholas, who was leaning by the fireplace and warming his hands. “What do you want with dead men in the house, you trollop?” “It is no dead of mine, my lord,” answered the woman with evil civility, “but one who took shelter here and died.” “A curst witch!” roared Crediton. “You hear that, Nick! Came here—died—and now you’ll put spells on us, you ugly slut—” “No spells of mine,” answered the woman quietly, rubbing her large clean hands together. “He had been long ailing and died here of an ague.” “And who sent the ague?” asked Crediton with drunken gravity. “And who sent him here?” “Perhaps the same hand that sent us,” laughed Sir Nicholas. “Where is your corpse, Goody?” “In the next room—I have but two.” “And two too many—you need but a bundle of faggots and a tuft of tow to light it—an arrant witch, a contest witch,” muttered Crediton; he staggered up from the stool. “Where is your corpse? I’ve a mind to see if he looks as if he died a natural death.” “Will you not ask first who it is?” asked the woman, unlatching the inner door. “Why should I care?” “Who is it?” asked Sir Nicholas, who had the clearer wits, drunk or sober. “Richard Horne,” said Goody Boyle. Ned Crediton looked at her with the eyes of a sober man. “Richard Horne,” said Sir Nicholas. “So he is dead at last—your wife will be glad of that, Ned.” Crediton gave a sullen laugh. “I’d broken him—she wasn’t afraid any longer of a lost wretch, cast out to die of ague on the marsh.” But Sir Nicholas had heard differently; he had been told, even by Ned himself, how Anne Crediton shivered before the terror of Richard Horne’s pursuit, and would wake up in the dark crying out for fear of him, like a lost child; for he had wooed her before her marriage, and persisted in loving her afterwards with mad boldness and insolent confidence, so that justice had been set on him and he had been banished to the marsh, a ruined man. “Well, sirs,” said Goody Boyle, in her thin voice that had the pinched accent of other parts, “my lady can sleep o’ nights now—for Robert Horne will never disturb her again.” “Do you think he ever troubled us?” asked Crediton with a coarse oath. “I flung him out like an adder that had writhed across the threshold—” “A wonder he did not put a murrain on thee, Ned. He had fearful ways and a deep knowledge of unholy things.” “A warlock. God help us,” added the woman. “The Devil’s proved an ill master then,” laughed Crediton. “He could not help Richard Horne into Anne’s favor—nor prevent him lying in a cold bed in the flower of his age.” “The Devil,” smiled Sir Nicholas, “was over busy, Ned, helping you to the lady’s favor and a warm bed. You were the dearer disciple.” “Oh, good lords, will you talk less wildly with a lost man’s corpse in the house, and his soul riding the storm without?” begged Goody Boyle; and she latched again the inner door. Murk filled the cottage now; waves of shadow flowed over the landscape without the rain-blotted window, and drowned the valley. In the bitter field, the melancholy ewes huddled beneath the blasted oak beside the bare pool, the stagnant surface of which was now broken by the quick raindrops; a low thunder grumbled from the horizon and all the young greenery looked livid in the ghastly light of heaven. “I’ll see him,” said Ned Crediton, swaggering. “I’ll look at this gay gallant in his last smock!—so that I can swear to Anne he has taken his amorous smile to the earthworms—surely.” “Look as you like,” answered Sir Nicholas, “glut your eyes with looking—” “But you’ll remember, sirs, that he was a queer man and died queerly, and there was no parson or priest to take the edge off his going, or challenge the fiends who stood at his head and feet.” “Saw you the fiends?” asked Ned curiously. “Question not what I saw,” muttered the woman. “You’ll have your own familiars, Esquire Crediton.” She unlatched the inner door again and Ned passed in, bowing low on the threshold. “Good day, Robert Horne,” he jeered. “We parted in anger, but my debts are paid now and I greet you well.” The dead man lay on a pallet bed with a coarse white sheet over him that showed his shape but roughly; the window was by his head and looked blankly on to the rain-bitten fields and dismal sky; the light was cold and colorless on the white sheet and the miserable room. Sir Nicholas lounged in the doorway; he feared no death but his own, and that he set so far away it was but a dim dread. “Look and see if it is Robert Horne,” he urged, “or if the beldam lies.” And Crediton turned down the sheet. “‘Tis Robert Horne,” he said. The dead man had his chin uptilted, his features sharp and horrible in the setting of the spilled fair hair, on the coarse pillow. Ned Crediton triumphed over him, making lewd jests of love and death, and sneering at this great gallant, who had been crazed for love and driven by desire, and who now lay impotent. And Sir Nicholas in the doorway listened and laughed and had his own wicked jeers to add; for both of them had hated Robert Horne as a man who had defied them. But Goody Boyle stole away with her fingers in her ears. When these two were weary of their insults they returned the flap of the sheet over the dead face and returned to the outer room. And Ned asked for drink, declaring that Goody Boyle was a known smuggler and had cellars of rare stuff. So the lout brought up glasses of cognac and a bottle of French wine, and these two drank grossly, sitting over the fire; and Goody Boyle made excuse for the drink, by saying that Robert Horne had given her two gold pieces before he died (not thin pared coins but thick and heavy) for his funeral, and the entertainment of those who should come to his burying. “What mourners could he hope for?” laughed Ned Crediton. “The crow and the beetle and the death-watch spider!” But Goody Boyle told him that Robert Horne had made friends while he had lived an outcast on the marshes; they were, no doubt, queer and even monstrous people, but they were coming tonight to sit with Robert Horne before he was put in the ground. “And who, Goody, have warned this Devil’s congregation of the death of Robert Horne?” asked Sir Nicholas. She answered him—that Robert Horne was not ill an hour or a day but for a long space struggled with fits of the marsh fever, and in between these bouts of the ague, he went abroad like a well man, and his friends would come up and see him and the messenger who came up to enquire after him was Tora, the Egyptian girl who walked with her bosom full of violets. The storm was in full fury now, muttering low and sullen round the cottage with great power of beating rain. “Robert Horne was slow in dying,” said Sir Nicholas. “Of what did he speak in those days?” “Of a woman, good sir.” “Of my wife!” cried Ned. Goody Boyle shook her head with a look of stupidity. “I know nothing of that. Though for certain he called her Anne, sweet Anne, and swore he would possess her yet—in so many words and very roundly.” “But he died balked,” said Ned, swaying on his stool, “and he’ll rot outside holy ground.” “They’ll lay him in Deadman’s Field, which is full of old bones none can plough and no sheep will graze,” answered the woman, “and I must set out to see lame Jonas who promised to have the grave ready—but maybe the rain has hindered him.” She looked at them shrewdly as she added, “That is, gentles, if you care to remain alone with the body of Robert Horne.” “I think of him as a dead dog,” replied Ned Crediton. And when the woman had gone, he, being loosened with the French brandy, suggested a gross jest. “Why should Robert Horne have all this honor, even from rogues and Egyptians? Let us fool them—throwing his corpse out into the byre, and I will lie under the sheet and presently sit up and fright them all, with the thought it is the Devil!” Sir Nicholas warmly cheered this proposal and they lurched into the inner chamber which was dark enough now by reason of a great northern cloud that blocked the light from the window. They pulled the sheet off Robert Horne and found him wrapped in another that was furled up under his chin, and so they carried him to the back door and peered through the storm for some secret place where they might throw him. And Ned Crediton saw a dark bed of rank hemlock and cried, “Cast him into the kecksies,” that being the rustic name for the weed. So they flung the dead man into the hemlocks which were scarce high enough to cover him, and to hide the whiteness of the sheet, broke off boughs from the hazel copse and put over him, and went back laughing to the cottage, and there kept a watch out from the front window and when they saw Goody Boyle toiling along through the rain, Ned took off his hat and coat and sword and folded them away under the bed, then Sir Nicholas wrapped him in the under sheet, so that he was shrouded to the chin, and he lay on the pillow, and drew the other sheet over him. “If thou sleepst do not snore,” said Sir Nicholas, and went back to the fire and lit his long clay full of Virginian tobacco. When Goody Boyle entered with her wet shawl over her head, she had two ragged creatures behind her who stared malevolently at the fine gentleman with his bright clothes and dark curls, lolling by the fire and watching the smoke rings rise from his pipe. “Esquire Crediton has ridden for home,” he said, “but I am not minded to risk the ague.” And he sipped more brandy and laughed at them, and they muttering, for they knew his fame, went into the death-chamber and crouched round the couch where Sir Nicholas had just laid Ned Crediton under the sheet. And presently others came up, Egyptians, eel-catchers and the like, outcasts and vagrants who crept in to watch by the corpse. Sir Nicholas presently rolled after them to see the horror and shriekings for grace there would be, when the dead man threw aside his shroud and sat up. But the vigil went on till the night closed in and the two wax candles were lit, and still Ned Crediton gave no sign, nor did he snore or heave beneath the sheet, and Sir Nicholas became impatient, for the rain was over and he was weary of the foul air and the grotesque company. “The fool,” he thought (for he kept his wits well even in his cups), “has gone into a drunken sleep and forgot the joke.” So he pushed his way to the bed and turned down the sheet, whispering, “This jest will grow stale with keeping.” But the words withered on his lips, for he looked into the face of a dead man. At the cry he gave they all came babbling about him and he told them of the trick that had been put upon them. “But there’s Devil’s work here,” he added. “For here is the body back again—or Ned Crediton dead and frozen into a likeness of the other”—and he flung the sheet end quickly over the pinched face and fair hair. “And what did ye do with Robert Horne, outrageous dare fiend that ye be?” demanded an old vagrant; and the young lord passed the ill words and answered with whitened lips. “We cast him into yon bed of kecksies.” And they all beat out into the night, the lout with a lantern. And there was nothing at all in the bed of kecksies…and Ned Crediton’s horse was gone from the stable. “He was drunk,” said Sir Nicholas, “and forgot his part—and fled that moment I was in the outer room.” “And in that minute did he carry Robert Horne in alone and wrap him up so neatly?” queried Goody Boyle. “Well go in,” said another hag, “and strip the body and see which man it be—” But Sir Nicholas was in the saddle. “Let be,” he cried wildly, “there’s been gruesome work enough for tonight—it’s Robert Horne you have there—let be—Ill back to Crediton Manor—” And he rode his horse out of the field, then more quickly down the darkling road, for the fumes of the brandy were out of his brain and he saw clearly and dreaded many things. At the cross-roads when the ghastly moon had suddenly struck free of the retreating clouds he saw Ned Crediton ahead of him riding sharply, and he called out: “Eh, Ned, what have you made of this jest? This way it is but a mangled folly.” “What matter now for jest or earnest?” answered the other. “I ride home at last.” Sir Nicholas kept pace with him; he was hatless and wore a shabby cloak that was twisted about him with the wind of his riding. “Why did not you take your own garments?” asked Sir Nicholas. “Belike that rag you’ve snatched up belonged to Robert Horne—” “If Crediton could steal his shroud he can steal his cloak,” replied Ned, and his companion said no more, thinking him wrought into a frenzy with the brandy and the evil nature of the joke. The moon shone clear and cold with a faint stain like old blood in the halo, and the trees, bending in a seaward wind, cast the recent rain that loaded them heavily to the ground, as the two rode into the gates of Crediton Manor. The hour was later than even Sir Nicholas knew (time had been blurred for him since the coming of the storm) and there was no light save a dim lamp in an upper window. Ned Crediton dropped out of the saddle, not waiting for the mounting block, and rang the iron bell till it clattered through the house like a madman’s fury. “Why, Ned, why this panic homecoming?” asked Sir Nicholas; but the other answered him not, but rang again. There were footsteps within and the rattle of chains, and a voice asked from the side window: “Who goes there?” And Crediton dragged at the bell and screamed: “I! The Master!” The door was opened and an old servant stood there, pale in his bedgown. Ned Crediton passed him and stood by the newel post, like a man spent, yet alert. “Send some one for the horses,” said Nick Bateup, “for your master is crazy drunk—I tell you, Mathews, he has seen Robert Horne dead tonight—” Crediton laughed; the long rays of the lamp light showed him pale, haggard, distorted with tumbled fair hair and a torn shirt under the mantle, and at his waist a ragged bunch of hemlock thrust into his sash. “A posy of kecksies for Anne,” he said; and the sleepy servants now up, began to come into the hall, looked at him with dismay. “I’ll lie here tonight,” said Sir Nicholas; “bring me lights into the parlor. I’ve no mind to sleep.” He took off his hat and fingered his sword and glanced uneasily at the figure by the newel post with the posy of kecksies. Another figure appeared at the head of the stairs, Anne Crediton holding her candle, wearing a grey lutestring robe and a lace cap with long ribbons that hung on to her bosom; she peered over the baluster and some of the hot wax from her taper fell on to the oak treads. “I’ve a beau pot for you, Anne,” said Crediton, looking up and holding out the hemlocks. “I’ve long been dispossessed, Anne, but I’ve come home at last.” She drew back without a word and her light flickered away across the landing; Crediton went up after her and they heard a door shut. In the parlor the embers had been blown to flames and fresh logs put on and Sir Nicholas warmed his cold hands and told old Mathews (in a sober manner for him) the story of the jest they had striven to put on Goody Boyle and the queer, monstrous people from the marsh, and the monstrous ending of it, and the strangeness of Ned Crediton; it was not his usual humor to discourse with servants or to discuss his vagrant debaucheries with any, but tonight he seemed to need company and endeavored to retain the old man, who was not reluctant to stay though usually he hated to see the dark face and bright clothes of Nick Bateup before the hearth of Crediton Manor. And as these two talked, disconnectedly, as if they would fill the gap of any silence that might fall in the quiet house, there came the wail of a woman, desperate yet sunken. “It is Mistress Crediton,” said Mathews with a downcast look. “He ill-uses her?” “God help us, he will use buckles and straps to her, Sir Nicholas.” A quivering shriek came brokenly down the stairs and seemed to form the word “mercy.” Sir Nicholas was an evil man who died unrepentant; but he was not of a temper to relish raw cruelty or crude brutalities to women; he would break their souls but never their bodies. So he went to the door and listened, and old Mathews had never liked him so well as now when he saw the look on the thin dark face. For the third time she shrieked and they marvelled that any human being could hold her breath so long; yet it was muffled as if some one held a hand over her mouth. The sweat stood out on the old man’s forehead. “I’ve never before known her complain sir,” he whispered. “She is a very dog to her lord and takes her whip mutely—” “I know, I know—she adores his hand when it caresses or when it strikes—but tonight—if I know anything of a woman’s accents, that is a note of abhorrence—” He ran up the stairs, the old man panting after him with the snatched-up lantern. “Where is her chamber?” “Here, Sir Nicholas.” The young man struck on the heavy oak panels with the hilt of his sword. “Madam, Madam Crediton, why are you so ill at ease?” She moaned from within. “Open to me, Ill call some of your women—come out—” Their blood curdled to hear her wails. “Damn you to Hell,” cried Sir Nicholas in a fury. “Come out, Ned Crediton, or I’ll have the door down and run you through.” The answer was a little break of maniac laughter. “She has run mad or he,” cried Mathews, backing from the room. “And surely there is another clamor at the door—” Again the bell clanged and there were voices and tumult at the door; Mathews went and opened, and Sir Nicholas looking down the stairs saw in the moonlight a dirty farm cart, a sweating horse and some of the patched and rusty crew who had been keeping vigil in Goody Boyle’s cottage. “We’ve brought Esquire Crediton home,” said one; and the others lifted a body from the cart and carried it through the murky moonlight. Sir Nicholas came downstairs, for old Mathews could do nothing but cry for mercy. “It was Edward Crediton,” repeated the eel-catcher, shuffling into the hall, “clothed all but his coat and hat and that was under the bed—there be his watches and chains, his seals and the papers in his pockets—and for his visage now there is no mistakening it.” They had laid the body on the table where it had so often sat and larked and ate and drunk and cursed; Sir Nicholas gazed, holding up the lantern. Edward Crediton—never any doubt of that now, though his face was distorted as by the anguish of a sudden and ugly death. “We never found Robert Horne,” muttered one of the mourners, trailing his foul muddy rags nearer the fire, and thrusting his crooked hands to the blaze. And Mathews fell on his knees and tried to pray, but could think of no words. “Who is upstairs?” demanded Sir Nicholas in a terrible voice. “Who is with that wretched woman?” And he stared at the body of her husband. Mathews, who had loved her as a little child, began gibbering and moaning. “Did he not say he’d have her? And did not yon fool change places with him? Oh God, oh God, and has he not come to take his place—” “But Robert Horne was dead. I saw him dead,” stammered Sir Nicholas, and set the lantern down, for his hand shook so the flame waved in the gusts. “Eh,” shrieked old Mathews, grovelling on his hands and knees in his bedgown. “Might not the Devil have lent him his body back for his own pitchy purposes?” They looked at him a little, seeing he was suddenly crazed; then Sir Nicholas ran up the stairs with the others at his heels and thundered with his sword, and kicked and shouted outside Anne Crediton’s chamber door. All the foul, muddy, earthy crew cowered on the stairs and chittered together, and in the parlor before the embers old Mathews crouched huddled, and whimpered. The bedroom door opened and Robert Horne came out and stood and smiled at them, and the young man in his fury fell back and his sword rattled from his hand to the floor. Robert Horne was a white death, nude to the waist and from there swathed in grave clothes; under the tattered dark cloak he had ridden in, was his shroud knotted round his neck; his naked chest gleamed with ghastly dews and under the waxen polish of his sunken face the decayed blood showed in discolored patches; he went down the stairs and they hid their faces while his foul whiteness passed. Sir Nicholas stumbled into the bedchamber. The moonlight showed Anne Crediton tumbled on the bed, dead, and staring with the posy of kecksies on her bare breast, and her mouth hung open and her hands clutching at the curtains. The mourners rode back and picked up Robert Horne’s body whence it had returned from the kecksie patch and buried it in unholy ground with great respect, as one to whom the Devil had given his great desire. The post PseudoPod 740: Kecksies appeared first on PseudoPod.
48 minutes | 17 days ago
PseudoPod 739: Morag-of-the-Cave
Author : Margery Lawrence Narrators : Lucy McCloughlin and Dave Robison Host : Alasdair Stuart Audio Producer : Chelsea Davis Discuss on Forums First published in Hutchinson’s Mystery Story Magazine, July 1925. – “Morag-of-the-Cave” is an evocative tale of lovers from the sea that predates that fateful visit to Innsmouth by over a decade. But this version contains enough heat that Howie would have broken into a sweat. The pre-episode warning excerpt is from the beginning of “The Electronic Plague” by Edward Hades and it first appeared in Weird Tales, April 1925. It is narrated by Dave Robison. Morag-of-the-Cave by Margery Lawrence I saw her first wandering along the bleak seashore, wrapped in the eternal shawl that cloaks the Irish peasant woman. I was staying with the O’Haras, delightful, happy-go-lucky people, but rather too strenuous and energetic for my more sedentary tastes. Fortunately we were sufficiently old friends for me to ‘gang my ain gait’ if I wanted to, and I spent much time pottering about the picturesque, dirty little village, and talking to the friendly fisherfolk. It was while I stood talking to Silis Hagan, the old woman who had nursed big Terry O’Hara, youngest of the clan, and my fiancé, through his many ills, that Morag-of-the-Cave passed by. A grey, quiet woman, tall and thin to a degree, she loitered down the sandy pathway, her hands twisted in her shawl—the absence of the usual knitting that is the ceaseless occupation of the crofter woman struck me, and I remarked on it at once. Silis shook his head as she stared at the retreating figure. ‘Sure, ’tis always so with her, poor soul, pour soul! ’Twould be better for her peace o’ mind if she’d bide quiet and mind house and work, like good Father Flaherty bids her, but no, ’tis no use. Down to the sea, down to the sea she is all her days! Herself pity her . . . Morag-of-the-Cave.’ I was alert at once, scenting a story. ‘Morag—that’s Mary, isn’t it? Mary-of-the-Cave? Why that name, Silis? Is there a story?’ Silis nodded, but her deep old eyes contracted a little, half, it seemed, in fear, half in distaste. ‘Sure, there’s a story . . . but by that same token it’s rather not telling it I’d be, Miss Edie.’ ‘Why in the world?’ I was, of course, now all agog to hear. ‘Why—it’s no tale for a sweet young lady to hear, for sure now.’ Silis’s tone was frankly reluctant, but I pressed her. ‘Ah, now do tell me. I asked Mr Terence whether you’d tell me any of your stories to put in my new book, and he promised me you would.’ Silis wavered. Terry was her idol, and I had used the one lever likely to sway her obstinacy. A shuffling step came in the soft sand, and Morag-of-the-Cave passed us again, her wide vague gaze lingering with a faint interest on my tweed skirt and bright orange woolly scarf. She paused a second uncertainly, as Silis greeted her kindly, but did not reply. For a moment she surveyed me, then her gaze wandered to Silis, and thence downwards to the rope of seaweed she held; I noticed that it was wet and fresh, and the edge of her torn skirt all dark and draggled with sea-water. She half opened her mouth to speak, then seemed to change her mind, and turning, wandered away up the winding slope towards the village. Suddenly, why I did not know, I felt myself shivering, chilled. Silis glanced at me shrewdly, and nodded. ‘Aye . . . it’s a breath o’ the deep sea she carries wi’ her . . . and will to her dying day. Well, it’s like Master Terry’d liefer you heard the tale from old Silis than the others—the tale of Morag McCodrum and her grievous sin—and her punishment for that same. An’ it’s I that remember her a wee girleen runnin’ about the yellow sands, the Virgin pardon her, poor soul! . . .’ This is the tale I heard then from old Silis as she sat beside her cabin door, her eyes fixed on the somber grey ripples that lapped the shingle at the threshold of her battered door. ‘Nobody knew just where the child Morag got her love of the sea. Seemed it dated from her very earliest years, for many was the time her mother would miss the baby, and find her crawling through bent and wildblown grasses down towards the beach. Just poor folks they were, the McCodrums. He shared a boat with two others, did Neil McCodrum, and his wife Shelagh worked hard to keep their tiny cot in decent order and the six sturdy babies washed and fed—though it was little but potatoes and porridge, and maybe a bit of bread sometimes, they had to live on. Still, they were fine handsome children; Shelagh and Neil were a pretty pair in their day; but wee Morag was different from the rest from the start, with her white face and black hair long and lank as seaweed, and eyes grey and green, not like the dancing blue of her brothers and sister, nor their curly brown hair and pink cheeks. ‘Bride was the eldest—eh, but she was bonny, Bride and her wide smile and free step! She played “mother” to Morag when the little lass was a wean, but many’s the time simple Bride was anxious and distressed about her little sister, and puzzled, too—for keep the child away from sight or sound of the sea you could not. Neil laughed and swore she’d a true fisher’s blood in her veins, and should have been a boy—and truly, to soothe her tears as a baby, Bride had to put her without doors, no matter rain or storm, within sight of the grey sullen water, and she’d coo and laugh, no matter what tempers had gone before, and fall asleep there on the wet sands as if she was laid in a queen’s cradle! As she grew up ’twas just the same—instead of biding indoors to help her mother wash and cook and mend as Bride did, for the four strapping boys that now went out to fish with Neil McCodrum, Morag was for ever wandering down near the sea, staring out over the restless tossing water with eyes that were the selfsame colour, and as changeful. The coast is wild and rocky enough at Ballymagh, and honeycombed with great caves; had it been a fashionable seaside place there would a’ been folks come miles to explore, with their guide-books and candles and such . . . but here ’twas rare to find a soul that cared to break the eternal silence of the caves, save occasionally a venturesome lad or two after seagulls’ eggs or some such treasure-trove. Indeed, there were few enough of those, since folks said the caves were haunted, and in especial the Cave o’ Dread, as it was called, though none could say just why it was called so—some ancient tale clung to it, so that none would go near it by night, and few enough by day. . . . ‘Many of the caves were inaccessible except at low tide, and that perilously; to win to the lowering entrance of the black Cave o’ Dread one had to wait the tide’s ebb, and then set out on a treacherous scramble from rock to rock, thick with slimy popweed, ready to fling the climber at the first slip into the hungry depths that moved below, waiting, waiting, champing white teeth of foam against the sharp black crags in the grey water. It was a fearsome place, the Cave o’ Dread, with the stealthy agate-hued sea flooring it, and the darkness filled horribly with the sullen moaning of the echoes that haunted the unknown distances in the deep heart of it, like the distant crooning heard in some giant shell. A fearsome place! ‘Strange, then, that that was the very cave from which Morag drew her nickname—that place of chill and sullen mystery that one would think would strike cold fear into the heart of any child! ’Twas one day—and she but sixteen, too—she was missing as usual, but her folks thought at first it was no matter, she would be along the shore, be sure, where she always was. Bride was to be wed to her man, Ian McAlpine, very soon, and of course, Shelagh, mother-like, fluttering around her like a bird afraid to let her young one fly alone . . . anyway, it was late that night when Ian said “Where was Morag?” and Shelagh remembered the girl had never been home since the early morn when she left the cottage. They went calling and crying for her, the creature, but no reply came. . . . One o’clock in the morning, and Shelagh night crazy, and no Morag! ‘It was Ian McAlpine found her at last, and would you believe it? It’s perched on a ledge up on the side of the black Cave o’ Dread she was, where she had been bidden never to go, wrapped in her shawl, quite happy. Young McAlpine took out his boat, having his suspicions, as he’d seen her, he said, two days before scrambling over the rocks towards the cave at low tide. At low tide she had gone this time she said, but when the sea started to come in, instead of turning homewards to the shore, she felt it “draw her”, so she put it—queerly enough, I thought—and nothing would serve her but to stay and watch the great green-grey waters sweep storming into the cave, deafening her ears with their clamour, and wetting her with flying spray. How she climbed up to that bit of a ledge, Himself only knows, Ian said. The lad risked his neck to save her, rocking in his wee boat in the heart of the seething water that swirled about the mouth of the cave. ‘Somehow he managed to edge close enough to the sheer rock for her to jump, but his heart was in his mouth, he said, as he did it, for just then a great wave seemed to rise and all but swept him and his bit of a boat into the far black heart of the cave, whence came a roaring and a thundering that fairly scared the life out of him; but it seemed at the moment that Morag cried something in a strange voice, and that same wave washed his boat back again under her feet and so outside the cave into the breaking dawn-light. As he pulled at the oars, wild to draw away from the awful nearness of that sheer wall of rock, she threw out her arms, and catching a handful of flying spray, buried her lips in it and kissed the wet saltness. . . . Mother of Mercy, but Ian was scared! He thought she was mad, poor lad, and he never rowed so hard as on that race for the shore! . . . But there, she was right enough, only talk as Neil and Shelagh might, she could never be made to see her grievous disobedience, nor even when Father Flaherty came to see her, and told her what a sin it was to cause her good mother such pain and anxiety, she merely stared at him in a puzzled way and shook her head vaguely, and did not seem to understand. He contented himself with setting her a penance, which she obediently performed, but the good priest felt within his secret heart all the time that it was done just for that reason—because she was a good obedient child at heart—than as a token of repentance for a sin. She talked oddly and rather wildly at times, too. Bride, round-eyed, came to her mother one day with a strange tale, and Shelagh, startled, taxed Morag with telling her sister a lie; but the girl shook her dark head with a curious smile. ‘“It’s not lying I am at all, mother agraidh. It was telling Bride about a light in the cave I was, and that’s no lie—no—no, for sure that’s no lie!” ‘Shelagh objected, a faint qualm at her heart. ‘“A light in the cave! . . . and it always dark as the tomb in the cave, to the stones be it said? . . .” ‘Morag nodded as she stared beyond her mother, her eyes kindling with a curiously phosphorescent gleam in the dusk. ‘“Sure—dark in the cave it was, for sure; cold and dark, and the sound o’ the water awash below me set me all a-shiver in the gloom, with the thin salt smell of the dripping weed, and the deathlike chill of it beneath me as I lay. . . . I lay and stared down into the black water moving in the darkness, with the pale gleam of it and the white frills o’ foam showing when it beat up against the side. For long and long I lay there, mother aghray, and it seemed strange thoughts moved in my mind with the moving water, and strange words moved to my lips . . . and then I found I was crooning under my breath strange songs, though Himself knows what tune it was, nor what speech it was I was putting my tongue to. . . .” ‘“Morag-a-ghraidh, muirnean, muirnean! Send they were holy hymns you sang!” Shelagh’s voice held terror, but Morag shook her head, smiling faintly. ‘“Not hymns—no, no, not hymns. Old songs, old, old songs. . . . I felt happy and warm and excited, and the cold and wet had all passed from me, or I learnt to love them, for my hands stroked and played with the wet dank weed and my feet caressed it. . . .” Her voice rose into a half chant, and the light in her eyes rose with it, shining. “Then with a roar the tide turned, and came to meet me, and down in the deep heart of the flood that poured shouting along beneath me a Light began to rise and spread and glow, green, cold-green and wonderful, and myself waiting for it, smiling and not afraid at all! . . .” ‘Panic-stricken, Shelagh flung her arms round the girl. ‘“And then, Mary be praised, Ian McAlpine called ye! Kneel down and pray—kneel down and pray!” ‘The light and fervour died out from the girl’s face, as when a candle is removed from behind a lighted pane, but obediently she bent and knelt with her mother before the tiny battered shrine. She joined dutifully in Shelagh’s fervent prayers, but the mother soul was not happy, and spent many hours that night in fresh prayers and supplications at the feet of the Virgin for protection for her baby against she knew not what, and dared not guess. Mingled with the intense religious belief in these remote islands is more than the priests suspect of the older pagan dread of and belief in all manner of demons, spirits, witches and so on, and deeply as Shelagh McCodrum longed for advice, poor woman, she’d not the courage to appeal to Father Flaherty. No, no, for the Father disapproved of any talk of sian or rosad, charm or spell . . . so she did not mention in confession that Sunday that she had furtively sewed up in the hem of Morag’s ragged frock a scrap of paper scribbled with all she could remember of an old runic charm against the Powers of the Sea. . . . ‘Well, one strange and vexatious development came of this adventure of Morag McCodrum, besides her name “Morag-ofthe-Cave”. Ian McAlpine, for some reason, perhaps since he had saved her, fell desperately in love with the girleen, young as she was, and poor Bride was sorely put out. She was proud, the creature, and gave him his freedom at once, yet ’twas hard for her to have to watch the lad a slave at her young sister’s feet, watching for a kind word, as a starving dog awaits a flung crust—though, to do her justice, Morag took little heed of him. Yet it made things at the cottage sadly difficult between the girls, and try as she might, Bride could not but show her jealousy and bitter resentment against her sister, and poor Shelagh was hard put to it to keep the peace between them. Well, well, ’tis small wonder that for peace and quiet Shelagh let Morag go a-wandering again sometimes, but she begged Ian to watch her, lest her strange craze for the caves should seize her once more, and she be taken and never found again, like poor Kit Harrigan, who was rash eno’ to swear he could explore them, and died in the depths alone, Mary ha’ mercy on his soul! ‘Ian McAlpine was out fishing most days, but his craze for the girl was so complete that he took to refusing to go to sea, and hanging about the McCodrum’s cottage till Neil swore roundly at him for an idler and warned him to keep away. Shelagh, who had told Neil nothing of her fears, was torn in two what to do, but Ian kept doggedly on his way. ‘No new suitor came to woo Bride, and she waxed more and more soured and bitter, and took to quarrelling with Morag so violently that the younger girl, conscious of no deliberate fault (for, as I say, she did not care for Ian, nor indeed for any of the lads who wooed her, though they came in plenty), took again to her old ways, wandering outdoors with the knitting her mother insisted on her doing now, and always, like a homing pigeon to its nest, straight down to the sea-edge. Ian, at her heels always, told afterwards that at times he had the strangest feeling with her; she would throw up her head as if she scented something, or heard some long-waited signal—hold tense for a moment, and then drop limp again to her knitting, as if disappointed. . . . He had a curious feeling then, and, says he, it grew stronger, though she only smiled and asked him what he meant if he asked her what it was. . . . It was the feeling that she was waiting, watching for something—some sign or message—from someone—or Something. . . . The quick jealousy of that love that knows it is not loved in return may have helped to sharpen this impression, but Ian swears that was ever in his mind. He says, too, she grew more and more withdrawn, aloof, as if all her inner womanhood, the delicate, wonderful thing he so adored, was slowly gathering itself up, together, in preparation for some great moment. Being garnered, as it were, in this quietude, this period of waiting, till the demand should be made, the Sacrifice needed . . . something of this sort, Ian told afterwards in his blundering way, trying to grasp the gradual working up of things towards the dreadful final act of the strange drama—the drama o’ the life of Morag-of-the-Cave. ‘One day it came. It was growing late, and the day had been sullen and heavy, with occasional rolls of thunder far distant over the brooding purple sea. Morag-of-the-Cave sat curled in a hollow of the rocks, the shallow water lapping her bare feet, and Ian, mending a torn net, sat astride a great stone near by. It was very still—the curious ominous stillness that precedes a storm—and suddenly across the sea there stole that odd booming sound, forerunner of the typhoon in tropic seas, of tempest everywhere; glancing up, Ian saw Morag drop her knitting and sit up, alert, her eyes wide—on the heels of the strange, almost stinging moan, a rattling peal of thunder broke directly overhead. No rain fell, but the sharpness of the crash was startling, it died away in a series of crackling explosions like fireballs bursting, and Morag, springing to her feet, cried out something—what, he could not hear, and she checked herself with a sudden quick look at him, but afterwards it seemed to him to sound like that other strange call of hers into space, the night he found her in the cave. Alarmed, he sprang to his feet; she smiled at him with the grey eyes of her so wide and innocent, he thought no guile. ‘“Ian—Ian—mo-charaidh, run to old Silis and be asking her for the loan of a shawl! It’s far to home, and moreover it’s not asking Bride for her shawl I’d be this day, after her strong words to me.” ‘Ian looked at her doubtfully, but she smiled at him. Sure, she was tired, achree, and would he ask her to walk when he might walk for her? For sure he would find her waiting . . . ah, well, he came to my cottage, the lad, and just then the storm broke. Eh, it was blinding, that storm! A grey wall seemed to stretch from heaven to earth, and through it fought Ian McAlpine staggering, drenched, blinded with the torrent, to where he had left her, but she had fled in that short time, screened by the howling storm! Up and down the beach he went, poor soul, frantic with terror, but no Morag answered him. Wild, he rushed to the McCodrum’s cabin, but she had not gone home. Back again to the beach he came, where the surf boiled upon the pebbles, drawing back from them with a screech like a maniac, and pouncing upon them again with maddened fingers o’ foam! The sky was purple-black and scarred with ragged lightning streaks, and the sea was black and savage, leaping up the cliffs as if each wicked breaker tried to hoist his white-capped head higher than his fellows; no boat could live in such a sea, and so Ian knew; but like a doomed man, as he strode the beach, his eyes dwelt on the grim outline of the headland where lurked that dreadful hole. By this time all the able men of Ballymagh were out searching for the poor crazed birdeen, but with little hope, for as they said, if their fears were true, and she gone to that hell of frenzied waters that was the cave in storms like this, what hope was there of finding even her body? They whispered of poor Kit Harrigan, and shook their heads . . . and as they talked, Ian slipped away. ‘Well, well, he told me of it afterwards, and though I shook my head and called the lad “fickle-fancy” when he changed from Bride to Morag, sure he loved Morag well, for he proved it. Up to the top of that storm-swept cliff he went, remembering vaguely one day in his boyhood, when he and Patsy Rafferty, bird-nesting, had found a steep way that seemed to lead down, they thought, near the roof of the Cave o’ Dread. Well, Himself only knows how he did it, but somehow he toiled his dreadful way along those slippery heights, stung and blinded by rain, deaf wi’ the wind’s buffetings, yet driven by his desperate love and anguish like a spurred horse . . . and he found it! By sheer chance he found it again, a deep hole under the lee of a rearing crag, a tunnel floored with broken stones and runnels of water, sloping down sharp into the very heart of the hill, like a mousehole into a wall. So narrow was it he could not crawl, but lay and slid down feet first, though quaking in every limb lest he slip and pitch heels foremost into some yawning abyss. Deep and deep it went, then suddenly widened, and thankfully Ian found he could turn about and go forward on hands and knees, feeling his way cautiously at every step. The abrupt slope became more gradual, and to his great amazement a faint light began to show in the distance; very small and green it was, green as young grass, and wavering, and his ears were filled with an ominous roaring like the booming of muffled guns at sea. Panting, soaked with sweat and rain he was when at last he emerged on to a wee shelf perched high, high in the roof of a great echoing dome, and found himself in the Cave o’ Dread itself, clinging to his tiny perch like a fly to the ceiling. ‘For a minute, blinded, stunned by the deafening noise of the wild waters that boiled and leapt below, he blinked, dazed, then prone on his stomach peered over the edge, his heart in his throat. On a ledge far below, close to the surface of the water, lay a dark shape, indistinguishable for a moment in the green dusk, but as the leaping spray threw a livid light upon the streaming, weed-hung walls, the shape moved, and throwing back the shawl that covered her, sprang to her feet. It was Morag! Och, arone, arone, ochrone, arone! Her clothes lay in a tumbled heap beside her, and white as ivory she shone against the wrinkled walls. Even at this distance from her, Ian saw the light in her eyes, and crumpled shuddering, as she straightened, naked against the naked rock, and flinging out her arms, cried aloud in a strange and terrible tongue! Rising and falling above the shrieking of the foam, the surge of the relentless waters, that voice rose to her horrified listener’s ears, shrilling louder and louder, wickedly exultant. ‘Hearing, his breath failed; he felt his bones turn to water within him, and turning feebly, tried to make for the passage, but, as he turned, a curious appearance in the water so far below arrested him—a small green steady light—at first like a gleam of phosphorescence, then rapidly growing and enlarging, cold and brilliantly green, lividly and somehow, somehow, utterly dreadful! Fascinated, he watched it; louder and louder screamed the terrible voice, and now in the strange song she sang stirred words and phrases that were vaguely familiar, and he knew, with the cold horror gripping him, the old Eolas, that Eolas of the Sea, and Those that live and move and have their being therein—Those that are never spoken of save with hushed voice and averted face, and before the priest, never, never! . . . ‘Now in the depths of the greenness Things seemed to be moving, moving as it were up from the bowels of the sea with the mounting Light and the mounting Voice! Things seen dimly, pallid, opalescent shadows against the livid green paleness of the light—shadows neither human nor bestial, but a dreadful mixture of both, it seemed, with a flickering restlessness where God made feet and hands . . . indefinite, utterly, but ghastly, obscenely awful to see, even in their indefiniteness, and growing clearer every minute! ‘The light grew and brightened, and Ian, shaking, turned and shuffled blindly up the passage; yet his last glimpse as he averted his face seemed to show him the waters parted, and a toad-white Shape uprearing to the ledge where stood Morag, his love, a smile of terrible welcome on her face!’ Silis paused. I shivered, held in utter fascination by the horrible tale. ‘Is that the end?’ I asked the question low. Silis shook her head. ‘’Twould have been kinder to her had it all ended so, poor soul. No, Ian came down to the village a dour, silent man, that had gone up the headland a lighthearted lad. Come the morning, the storm was past, and over the blue sea he rowed to find his love—or her body, as he thought. But lo, on the ledge Morag lay asleep and smiling! She stepped down into the boat with him, and when they got to shore, Ian McAlpine took her straight to the priest and bade him marry them. Aye—a great love had Ian McAlpine for Morag-of-the-Cave, for witless she was, more or less, now, and even her own folk, with the exception of her mother, turned against her. Not that Ian said aught of what he had seen—no, no—but they held that she had held converse with those that are Nameless, and so they shunned her, either in scorn or fear. . . . ‘Ian bought a fine boat of his own, and all went well till her time was near, and then . . . Mother o’ God, pity and forgive us all our sins! One dark night Ian knocked at my cabin door, and I opened it—and there he stood with a bundle in his arms, and the eyes of him like a man who had stood face to face with naked Terror, and remains a man and sane. . . . He walked in, and I stood quaking because of I knew not what. ‘“Silis,” says he, “lend me a spade.” ‘Oh, the stroke of that on my heart, like the clod falling on a coffin-lid! ‘“A spade—Mary help you in your sorrow, Ian McAlpine,” says I. “Is it your first-born son you’ll be burying so soon, and that without prayer or priest to help him over the Threshold?” ‘With that Ian McAlpine laughed a dreadful laugh that was like the fall of yet another and heavier clod upon the coffin of my heart, and putting his wrapped burden on the table, turned away. ‘“Look, Silis Hagan—an’ tell me if you can that I do wrong!” ‘It was shaking my hand were as I parted the folds and looked on the little body that lay there—and it was shaking my knees were, and dry and choking my throat as I looked upon it, and looked, and looked. All the Saints protect you from such a sight, for it’d haunt you to your dying day, as it does me—as it does me! All the colour of a toad’s belly it was, the dreadful pallid white of the slime-born creatures that live in the deep waters—white and blind—and the face of it with a wide gaping mouth like a bull-frog, and heavy creased lids over staring eyes that had no colour but a pin-point of green where the pupils should be. But that was all small to the crowning horror, the thick body like a square log of pallid flesh with, at each corner, it seemed, a thing like a fin of the same dreadful pale flesh, fringed with flickering tentacles that even now seemed to twitch and move in the shuddering candle-flame. I staggered and reached out blindly, sick and heaving, and in a flash Ian was at my side putting me in a chair. ‘“Whist now—don’t look at it again. Silis, Silis! Now you know . . . pray for me this night, pray for me, an’ for the poor lost soul I left screaming on the bed. . . . Ah, Morag, mo-rùn, mo-rùn. A graidh-mo-Chridhe!’ ‘Snatching up the spade that was standing beside the hearth, he went to the door, hiding the muffled bundle under his coat, and the darkness swallowed him up. Only then did I remember, in the dazed horror of the moment, that round the dreadful crinkled throat of—It—I had seen the livid marks of strangling fingers. . . .’ Silis looked soberly at me. ‘That’s the story of Morag-of-the-Cave. A month later Ian was drowned at sea, and she left a widow. All I know is that before he went to sea again—he was fey of the sea after that, poor lad, and told me it would have him soon—he went over the island to old Father Mahoney. Old and wise he is, wiser than those clever young priests that laugh at the Powers that dwell outside Mother Church—blessings be to her—but Ian brought something back with him to bar Morag-of-the-Cave away from Those that we know of! Sure, she’ll still wander all her days beside the sea, the creature, but never again has she gone a step towards the cave . . . and it’s to be hoped she’s working out her purgatory here, poor soul, for sure enough she paid for her sin.’ ‘Did she never—ask after—it?’ For the life of me my tongue refused to say ‘her child’, though all my reason told me the story must be only a story—it was too fantastic, too horrible to be true. Silis winced. ‘Aye—’twas because of that that Ian went over the hills to Father Mahoney. Wandering down to the Cave she was all the days, and calling and talking in a strange language like a demented thing, till everybody was frightened of her. You couldn’t keep her from the Cave, and she’d lean down to the water of it, and weep and plead and whisper and laugh till it made your blood run cold to listen, but after Ian had got whatever he went to fetch from Father Mahoney she quieted—and now you wouldn’t fmd a more simple, peaceable, poor creature, witless as she is, in all the Islands.’ There was a crunch of booted feet upon the pebbles, and Terry, my old friend’s favourite, loomed large and beaming over us. ‘Hullo, Edie! Bless you, Silis!’ He displayed a full creel. ‘A splendid day; there’s another lot in the boat! We went out beyond the headland.’ He indicated the dark outline of the cliff where nested the cave of gruesome history. ‘I got a bit bored with fishing, and made Rooney take the boat into the big Cave, He didn’t want to, but I’d never been in and wanted to see it.’ Silis was listening with intent interest, and somehow I found myself hanging breathless upon his words—why? Exploring his pockets as he talked, he went on: ‘It’s a howling great place, all weed-hung, goes back miles into the land, and deep as hell, I should think. I got out of the boat, and crawled on to a bit of a ledge there to get a better view, and what do you think I found there?’ He fished out a battered tin box wrapped in sodden cloth. I heard the quick-drawn breath of old Silis behind me as she leant forward to see. Carefully Terry’s big fingers parted the cloth, and found the box sealed with a curious lumpy seal in black wax, unlike anything I had ever seen before. Agitatedly Silis stretched out her hand. ‘Master Terry—don’t open it. Go put it back again, don’t open it!’ Oddly enough, the same reluctance was ruling me, but I dared not voice it—Terry’s bluff laughter silenced me. ‘Silis, you’re a darling superstitious old idiot. There’s nothing inside but a bit of bait, I expect, but I just want to see why it is so carefully sealed up.’ His knife, with a faint crunching sound, cut away the seal, and prised the lid open. Inside lay two small packages wrapped in oilskin and sealed yet again with similar seals. In silence, I watched them split open, and lying in Terry’s brown palm, each by each. In one was a tarnished silver crucifix, and in the other lay a discoloured piece of paper on which was inscribed some lines in a totally unknown language—it looked like cuneiform to me, but I have since learnt to think it a transcription of some old Scandinavian Runic magic, potent against evils of the sea. Silis and I looked at each other. Before us lay, without doubt, pitifully small, yet so powerful, the keys that had succeeded in locking Morag McCodrum out of the Cave o’ Dread—old, old and wise, Father Mahoney had given Ian not only the charm of the Church’s holiness, but the charm of the old-world magic as well, lest the Church be impotent against those Things which are older than she is. Above our heads Terry babbled cheerfully on. ‘Well, what rubbish! What d’you make of them, Edie? Shall I throw ’em into the sea, or what—here goes!’ Silis stretched out a shaking agitated hand. ‘Master Terry—now, for the love of the Virgin, put them back where ye found them! Put them back!’ Terry stared at her in blank astonishment. ‘Go all the way back to the caves tonight just to dump those back on the ledge?’ he demanded. ‘Don’t be absurd, Silis, you old darling. It’s late, getting dark, and there’s a nasty breeze springing up. You don’t want me to risk my precious life going all that way again just for these, do you?’ He pinched her withered cheek good-humouredly, blandly unconscious of her agitation. I opened my mouth to protest, but what was there to say? It was on the face of it stupid to suggest that he should go back with this storm brewing. Finally the box went on to the shelf in Silis’s cottage, after her agitated pleadings for it. I knew she meant to bribe some lad to take it back the next day, as it was certainly too late tonight, and nobody would venture near the Cave o’ Dread after dark; and yet I felt as I walked away with Terry that it would be too late. It was. In the morning Morag-of-the-Cave was missing, and her body was never found—but one thing I will put down here that I have never mentioned to anybody. My room faced the headland, and for some reason that night I was wakeful and restless. The expected storm was a fierce one, and waxed more and more fierce as the hours wore on. I lay in bed and listened, and it seemed to me, strung up and excited as I was, that in the shouting wind there mingled, faint, yet distinctly gathering power, the confused crying of a thousand voices. I lay and shivered, yet with all my fear I felt a curious wild sort of exhilaration, as if something in me broke loose and rejoiced furiously, savagely, with the same rejoicing that springs to life within you at the sight of a caged bird set free. . . . Morag-of-the-Cave, pacing the shore day after day, dumb and witless and caged, staring out towards the headland that held her dread and her wonder . . . Morag-of-the-Cave, stretching mother-hungry arms towards that Terror that yet was born flesh of her flesh . . . Morag-of-the-Cave, white and slim and wonderful against the darkness as she screamed her welcome to That which came to woo her from the Uttermost Depths. . . . In the gathering storm that rattled my windows I seemed to hear her voice mingled with those other distant, crying voices, shouting, singing, jubilant! Springing out of bed I rushed to the window, shivering with excitement, half-hoping, half-dreading to hear or see—what? The headland was darkly outlined against the storm-torn sky, inky blue, and striped with hurrying clouds—but I caught my breath, for dimly against the blackness of the distant point a green point of light shone out. . . . As I looked it seemed to move, stately, steadily, sailing like a galleon against the storm, then dipped and vanished like a blinked eyelid, and on the instant the crying of the wind in my ears was but the wind’s voice once again. But in that brief moment I believe, fantastic as it may sound, that I was privileged to catch a faint glimpse of the triumphal passing of Morag-of-the-Cave to her own place, with Those about her, jubilant, rejoicing, with Whom she had cast in her lot. And if the God of our creed rejects her, as well may be, perchance those older gods to whom she went may prove more kind. The post PseudoPod 739: Morag-of-the-Cave appeared first on PseudoPod.
63 minutes | 22 days ago
PseudoPod 738: Bewitched
Author : Edith Wharton Narrators : Christiana Ellis and Dave Robison Host : Shawn Garrett Audio Producer : Chelsea Davis Discuss on Forums “Bewitched” was first published in Pictorial Review, March 1925 The pre-episode warning excerpt is from the beginning of “The Electronic Plague” by Edward Hades and it first appeared in Weird Tales, April 1925. It is narrated by Dave Robison. Bewitched by Edith Wharton I The snow was still falling thickly when Orrin Bosworth, who farmed the land south of Lone-top, drove up in his cutter to Saul Rutledge’s gate. He was surprised to see two other cutters ahead of him. From them descended two muffled figures. Bosworth, with increasing surprise, recognized Deacon Hibben, from North Ashmore, and Sylvester Brand, the widower, from the old Bearcliff farm on the way to Lonetop. It was not often that anybody in Hemlock County entered Saul Rutledge’s gate; least of all in the dead of winter, and summoned (as Bosworth, at any rate, had been) by Mrs. Rutledge, who passed, even in that unsocial region, for a woman of cold manners and solitary character. The situation was enough to excite the curiosity of a less imaginative man than Orrin Bosworth. As he drove in between the broken-down white gate-posts topped by fluted urns the two men ahead of him were leading their horses to the adjoining shed. Bosworth followed, and hitched his horse to a post. Then the three tossed off the snow from their shoulders, clapped their numb hands together, and greeted each other. “Hallo, Deacon.” “Well, well, Orrin — .” They shook hands. “‘Day, Bosworth,” said Sylvester Brand, with a brief nod. He seldom put any cordiality into his manner, and on this occasion he was still busy about his horse’s bridle and blanket. Orrin Bosworth, the youngest and most communicative of the three, turned back to Deacon Hibben, whose long face, queerly blotched and mouldy-looking, with blinking peering eyes, was yet less forbidding than Brand’s heavily-hewn countenance. “Queer, our all meeting here this way. Mrs. Rutledge sent me a message to come,” Bosworth volunteered. The Deacon nodded. “I got a word from her too — Andy Pond come with it yesterday noon. I hope there’s no trouble here—” He glanced through the thickening fall of snow at the desolate front of the Rutledge house, the more melancholy in its present neglected state because, like the gate-posts, it kept traces of former elegance. Bosworth had often wondered how such a house had come to be built in that lonely stretch between North Ashmore and Cold Corners. People said there had once been other houses like it, forming a little township called Ashmore, a sort of mountain colony created by the caprice of an English Royalist officer, one Colonel Ashmore, who had been murdered by the Indians, with all his family, long before the Revolution. This tale was confirmed by the fact that the ruined cellars of several smaller houses were still to be discovered under the wild growth of the adjoining slopes, and that the Communion plate of the moribund Episcopal church of Cold Corners was engraved with the name of Colonel Ashmore, who had given it to the church of Ashmore in the year 1723. Of the church itself no traces remained. Doubtless it had been a modest wooden edifice, built on piles, and the conflagration which had burnt the other houses to the ground’s edge had reduced it utterly to ashes. The whole place, even in summer, wore a mournful solitary air, and people wondered why Saul Rutledge’s father had gone there to settle. “I never knew a place,” Deacon Hibben said, “as seemed as far away from humanity. And yet it ain’t so in miles.” “Miles ain’t the only distance,” Orrin Bosworth answered; and the two men, followed by Sylvester Brand, walked across the drive to the front door. People in Hemlock County did not usually come and go by their front doors, but all three men seemed to feel that, on an occasion which appeared to be so exceptional, the usual and more familiar approach by the kitchen would not be suitable. They had judged rightly; the Deacon had hardly lifted the knocker when the door opened and Mrs. Rutledge stood before them. “Walk right in,” she said in her usual dead-level tone; and Bosworth, as he followed the others, thought to himself; “Whatever’s happened, she’s not going to let it show in her face.” It was doubtful, indeed, if anything unwonted could be made to show in Prudence Rutledge’s face, so limited was its scope, so fixed were its features. She was dressed for the occasion in a black calico with white spots, a collar of crochet-lace fastened by a gold brooch, and a gray woollen shawl crossed under her arms and tied at the back. In her small narrow head the only marked prominence was that of the brow projecting roundly over pale spectacled eyes. Her dark hair, parted above this prominence, passed tight and fiat over the tips of her ears into a small braided coil at the nape; and her contracted head looked still narrower from being perched on a long hollow neck with cord-like throat-muscles. Her eyes were of a pale cold gray, her complexion was an even white. Her age might have been anywhere from thirty-five to sixty. The room into which she led the three men had probably been the dining-room of the Ashmore house. It was now used as a front parlour, and a black stove planted on a sheet of zinc stuck out from the delicately fluted panels of an old wooden mantel. A newly-lit fire smouldered reluctantly, and the room was at once close and bitterly cold. “Andy Pond,” Mrs. Rutledge cried to some one at the back of the house, “step out and call Mr. Rutledge. You’ll likely find him in the wood-shed, or round the barn somewheres.” She rejoined her visitors. “Please suit yourselves to seats,” she said. The three men, with an increasing air of constraint, took the chairs she pointed out, and Mrs. Rutledge sat stiffly down upon a fourth, behind a rickety bead-work table. She glanced from one to the other of her visitors. “I presume you folks are wondering what it is I asked you to come here for,” she said in her dead-level voice. Orrin Bosworth and Deacon Hibben murmured an assent; Sylvester Brand sat silent, his eyes, under their great thicket of eyebrows, fixed on the huge boot-tip swinging before him. “Well, I allow you didn’t expect it was for a party,” continued Mrs. Rutledge. No one ventured to respond to this chill pleasantry, and she continued: “We’re in trouble here, and that’s the fact. And we need advice — Mr. Rutledge and myself do.” She cleared her throat, and added in a lower tone, her pitilessly clear eyes looking straight before her: “There’s a spell been cast over Mr. Rutledge.” The Deacon looked up sharply, an incredulous smile pinching his thin lips. “A spell?” “That’s what I said: he’s bewitched.” Again the three visitors were silent; then Bosworth, more at ease or less tongue-tied than the others, asked with an attempt at humour: “Do you use the word in the strict Scripture sense, Mrs. Rutledge?” She glanced at him before replying: “That’s how he uses it.” The Deacon coughed and cleared his long rattling throat. “Do you care to give us more particulars before your husband joins us?” Mrs. Rutledge looked down at her clasped hands, as if considering the question. Bosworth noticed that the inner fold of her lids was of the same uniform white as the rest of her skin, so that when she dropped them her rather prominent eyes looked like the sightless orbs of a marble statue. The impression was unpleasing, and he glanced away at the text over the mantelpiece, which read: The Soul That Sinneth It Shall Die. “No,” she said at length, “I’ll wait.” At this moment Sylvester Brand suddenly stood up and pushed back his chair. “I don’t know,” he said, in his rough bass voice, “as I’ve got any particular lights on Bible mysteries; and this happens to be the day I was to go down to Starkfield to close a deal with a man.” Mrs. Rutledge lifted one of her long thin hands. Withered and wrinkled by hard work and cold, it was nevertheless of the same leaden white as her face. “You won’t be kept long,” she said. “Won’t you be seated?” Farmer Brand stood irresolute, his purplish underlip twitching. “The Deacon here — such things is more in his line…” “I want you should stay,” said Mrs. Rutledge quietly; and Brand sat down again. A silence fell, during which the four persons present seemed all to be listening for the sound of a step; but none was heard, and after a minute or two Mrs. Rutledge began to speak again. “It’s down by that old shack on Lamer’s pond; that’s where they meet,” she said suddenly. Bosworth, whose eyes were on Sylvester Brand’s face, fancied he saw a sort of inner flush darken the farmer’s heavy leathern skin. Deacon Hibben leaned forward, a glitter of curiosity in his eyes. “They — who, Mrs. Rutledge?” “My husband, Saul Rutledge…and her…” Sylvester Brand again stirred in his seat. “Who do you mean by her?” he asked abruptly, as if roused out of some far-off musing. Mrs. Rutledge’s body did not move; she simply revolved her head on her long neck and looked at him. “Your daughter, Sylvester Brand.” The man staggered to his feet with an explosion of inarticulate sounds. “My — my daughter? What the hell are you talking about? My daughter? It’s a damned lie…it’s…it’s…” “Your daughter Ora, Mr. Brand,” said Mrs. Rutledge slowly. Bosworth felt an icy chill down his spine. Instinctively he turned his eyes away from Brand, and, they rested on the mildewed countenance of Deacon Hibben. Between the blotches it had become as white as Mrs. Rutledge’s, and the Deacon’s eyes burned in the whiteness like live embers among ashes. Brand gave a laugh: the rusty creaking laugh of one whose springs of mirth are never moved by gaiety. “My daughter Ora?” he repeated. “Yes.” “My dead daughter?” “That’s what he says.” “Your husband?” “That’s what Mr. Rutledge says.” Orrin Bosworth listened with a sense of suffocation; he felt as if he were wrestling with long-armed horrors in a dream. He could no longer resist letting his eyes return to Sylvester Brand’s face. To his surprise it had resumed a natural imperturbable expression. Brand rose to his feet. “Is that all?” he queried contemptuously. “All? Ain’t it enough? How long is it since you folks seen Saul Rutledge, any of you?” Mrs. Rutledge flew out at them. Bosworth, it appeared, had not seen him for nearly a year; the Deacon had only run across him once, for a minute, at the North Ashmore post office, the previous autumn, and acknowledged that he wasn’t looking any too good then. Brand said nothing, but stood irresolute. “Well, if you wait a minute you’ll see with your own eyes; and he’ll tell you with his own words. That’s what I’ve got you here for — to see for yourselves what’s come over him. Then you’ll talk different,” she added, twisting her head abruptly toward Sylvester Brand. The Deacon raised a lean hand of interrogation. “Does your husband know we’ve been sent for on this business, Mrs. Rutledge?” Mrs. Rutledge signed assent. “It was with his consent, then — ?” She looked coldly at her questioner. “I guess it had to be,” she said. Again Bosworth felt the chill down his spine. He tried to dissipate the sensation by speaking with an affectation of energy. “Can you tell us, Mrs. Rutledge, how this trouble you speak of shows itself…what makes you think…?” She looked at him for a moment; then she leaned forward across the rickety bead-work table. A thin smile of disdain narrowed her colourless lips. “I don’t think — I know.” “Well — but how?” She leaned closer, both elbows on the table, her voice dropping. “I seen ‘em.” In the ashen light from the veiling of snow beyond the windows the Deacon’s little screwed-up eyes seemed to give out red sparks. “Him and the dead?” “Him and the dead.” “Saul Rutledge and — and Ora Brand?” “That’s so.” Sylvester Brand’s chair fell backward with a crash. He was on his feet again, crimson and cursing. “It’s a God-damned fiend-begotten lie…” “Friend Brand…friend Brand…” the Deacon protested. “Here, let me get out of this. I want to see Saul Rutledge himself, and tell him—” “Well, here he is,” said Mrs. Rutledge. The outer door had opened; they heard the familiar stamping and shaking of a man who rids his garments of their last snowflakes before penetrating to the sacred precincts of the best parlour. Then Saul Rutledge entered. II As he came in he faced the light from the north window, and Bosworth’s first thought was that he looked like a drowned man fished out from under the ice— “self-drowned,” he added. But the snow-light plays cruel tricks with a man’s colour, and even with the shape of his features; it must have been partly that, Bosworth reflected, which transformed Saul Rutledge from the straight muscular fellow he had been a year before into the haggard wretch now before them. The Deacon sought for a word to ease the horror. “Well, now, Saul — you look’s if you’d ought to set right up to the stove. Had a touch of ague, maybe?” The feeble attempt was unavailing. Rutledge neither moved nor answered. He stood among them silent, incommunicable, like one risen from the dead. Brand grasped him roughly by the shoulder. “See here, Saul Rutledge, what’s this dirty lie your wife tells us you’ve been putting about?” Still Rutledge did not move. “It’s no lie,” he said. Brand’s hand dropped from his shoulder. In spite of the man’s rough bullying power he seemed to be undefinably awed by Rut-ledge’s look and tone. “No lie? You’ve gone plumb crazy, then, have you?” Mrs. Rutledge spoke. “My husband’s not lying, nor he ain’t gone crazy. Don’t I tell you I seen ‘em?” Brand laughed again. “Him and the dead?” “Yes.” “Down by the Lamer pond, you say?” “Yes.” “And when was that, if I might ask?” “Day before yesterday.” A silence fell on the strangely assembled group. The Deacon at length broke it to say to Mr. Brand: “Brand, in my opinion we’ve got to see this thing through.” Brand stood for a moment in speechless contemplation: there was something animal and primitive about him, Bosworth thought, as he hung thus, lowering and dumb, a little foam beading the corners of that heavy purplish underlip. He let himself slowly down into his chair. “I’ll see it through.” The two other men and Mrs. Rutledge had remained seated. Saul Rutledge stood before them, like a prisoner at the bar, or rather like a sick man before the physicians who were to heal him. As Bosworth scrutinized that hollow face, so wan under the dark sunburn, so sucked inward and consumed by some hidden fever, there stole over the sound healthy man the thought that perhaps, after all, husband and wife spoke the truth, and that they were all at that moment really standing on the edge of some forbidden mystery. Things that the rational mind would reject without a thought seemed no longer so easy to dispose of as one looked at the actual Saul Rutledge and remembered the man he had been a year before. Yes; as the Deacon said, they would have to see it through… “Sit down then, Saul; draw up to us, won’t you?” the Deacon suggested, trying again for a natural tone. Mrs. Rutledge pushed a chair forward, and her husband sat down on it. He stretched out his arms and grasped his knees in his brown bony fingers; in that attitude he remained, turning neither his head nor his eyes. “Well, Saul,” the Deacon continued, “your wife says you thought mebbe we could do something to help you through this trouble, whatever it is.” Rutledge’s gray eyes widened a little. “No; I didn’t think that. It was her idea to try what could be done.” “I presume, though, since you’ve agreed to our coming, that you don’t object to our putting a few questions?” Rutledge was silent for a moment; then he said with a visible effort: “No; I don’t object.” “Well — you’ve heard what your wife says?” Rutledge made a slight motion of assent. “And — what have you got to answer? How do you explain…?” Mrs. Rutledge intervened. “How can he explain? I seen ‘em.” There was a silence; then Bosworth, trying to speak in an easy reassuring tone, queried: “That so, Saul?” “That’s so.” Brand lifted up his brooding head. “You mean to say you…you sit here before us all and say…” The Deacon’s hand again checked him. “Hold on, friend Brand. We’re all of us trying for the facts, ain’t we?” He turned to Rutledge. “We’ve heard what Mrs. Rutledge says. What’s your answer?” “I don’t know as there’s any answer. She found us.” “And you mean to tell me the person with you was…was what you took to be…” the Deacon’s thin voice grew thinner: “Ora Brand?” Saul Rutledge nodded. “You knew…or thought you knew…you were meeting with the dead?” Rutledge bent his head again. The snow continued to fall in a steady unwavering sheet against the window, and Bosworth felt as if a winding-sheet were descending from the sky to envelop them all in a common grave. “Think what you’re saying! It’s against our religion! Ora…poor child!…died over a year ago. I saw you at her funeral, Saul. How can you make such a statement?” “What else can he do?” thrust in Mrs. Rutledge. There was another pause. Bosworth’s resources had failed him, and Brand once more sat plunged in dark meditation. The Deacon laid his quivering finger-tips together, and moistened his lips. “Was the day before yesterday the first time?” he asked. The movement of Rutledge’s head was negative. “Not the first? Then when…” “Nigh on a year ago, I reckon.” “God! And you mean to tell us that ever since — ?” “Well…look at him,” said his wife. The three men lowered their eyes. After a moment Bosworth, trying to collect himself, glanced at the Deacon. “Why not ask Saul to make his own statement, if that’s what we’re here for?” “That’s so,” the Deacon assented. He turned to Rutledge. “Will you try and give us your idea…of…of how it began?” There was another silence. Then Rutledge tightened his grasp on his gaunt knees, and still looking straight ahead, with his curiously clear unseeing gaze: “Well,” he said, “I guess it begun away back, afore even I was married to Mrs. Rutledge…” He spoke in a low automatic tone, as if some invisible agent were dictating his words, or even uttering them for him. “You know,” he added, “Ora and me was to have been married.” Sylvester Brand lifted his, head. “Straighten that statement out first, please,” he interjected. “What I mean is, we kept company. But Ora she was very young. Mr. Brand here he sent her away. She was gone nigh to three years, I guess. When she come back I was married.” “That’s right,” Brand said, relapsing once more into his sunken attitude. “And after she came back did you meet her again?” the Deacon continued. “Alive?” Rutledge questioned. A perceptible shudder ran through the room. “Well — of course,” said the Deacon nervously. Rutledge seemed to consider. “Once I did — only once. There was a lot of other people round. At Cold Corners fair it was.” “Did you talk with her then?” “Only a minute.” “What did she say?” His voice dropped. “She said she was sick and knew she was going to die, and when she was dead she’d come back to me.” “And what did you answer?” “Nothing.” “Did you think anything of it at the time?” “Well, no. Not till I heard she was dead I didn’t. After that I thought of it — and I guess she drew me.” He moistened his lips. “Drew you down to that abandoned house by the pond?” Rutledge made a faint motion of assent, and the Deacon added: “How did you know it was there she wanted you to come?” “She…just drew me…” There was a long pause. Bosworth felt, on himself and the other two men, the oppressive weight of the next question to be asked. Mrs. Rutledge opened and closed her narrow lips once or twice, like some beached shell-fish gasping for the tide. Rutledge waited. “Well, now, Saul, won’t you go on with what you was telling us?” the Deacon at length suggested. “That’s all. There’s nothing else.” The Deacon lowered his voice. “She just draws you?” “Yes.” “Often?” “That’s as it happens…” “But if it’s always there she draws you, man, haven’t you the strength to keep away from the place?” For the first time, Rutledge wearily turned his head toward his questioner. A spectral smile narrowed his colourless lips. “Ain’t any use. She follers after me…” There was another silence. What more could they ask, then and there? Mrs. Rut-ledge’s presence checked the next question. The Deacon seemed hopelessly to revolve the matter. At length he spoke in a more authoritative tone. “These are forbidden things. You know that, Saul. Have you tried prayer?” Rutledge shook his head. “Will you pray with us now?” Rutledge cast a glance of freezing indifference on his spiritual adviser. “If you folks want to pray, I’m agreeable,” he said. But Mrs. Rutledge intervened. “Prayer ain’t any good. In this kind of thing it ain’t no manner of use; you know it ain’t. I called you here, Deacon, because you remember the last case in this parish. Thirty years ago it was, I guess; but you remember. Lefferts Nash — did praying help him? I was a little girl then, but I used to hear my folks talk of it winter nights. Lefferts Nash and Hannah Cory. They drove a stake through her breast. That’s what cured him.” “Oh—” Orrin Bosworth exclaimed. Sylvester Brand raised his head. “You’re speaking of that old story as if this was the same sort of thing?” “Ain’t it? Ain’t my husband pining away the same as Lefferts Nash did? The Deacon here knows—” The Deacon stirred anxiously in his chair. “These are forbidden things,” he repeated. “Supposing your husband is quite sincere in thinking himself haunted, as you might say. Well, even then, what proof have we that the…the dead woman…is the spectre of that poor girl?” “Proof? Don’t he say so? Didn’t she tell him? Ain’t I seen ‘em?” Mrs. Rutledge almost screamed. The three men sat silent, and suddenly the wife burst out: “A stake through the breast That’s the old way; and it’s the only way. The Deacon knows it!” “It’s against our religion to disturb the dead.” “Ain’t it against your religion to let the living perish as my husband is perishing?” She sprang up with one of her abrupt movements and took the family Bible from the what-not in a corner of die parlour. Putting the book on the table, and moistening a livid finger-tip, she turned the pages rapidly, till she came to one on which she laid her hand like a stony paper-weight. “See here,” she said, and read out in her level chanting voice: “‘Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.’ “That’s in Exodus, that’s where it is,” she added, leaving the book open as if to confirm the statement. Bosworth continued to glance anxiously from one to the other of the four people about the table. He was younger than any of them, and had had more contact with the modern world; down in Starkfield, in the bar of the Fielding House, he could hear himself laughing with the rest of the men at such old wives’ tales. But it was not for nothing that he had been born under the icy shadow of Lonetop, and had shivered and hungered as a lad through the bitter Hemlock County winters. After his parents died, and he had taken hold of the farm himself, he had got more out of it by using improved methods, and by supplying the increasing throng of summer-boarders over Stotesbury way with milk and vegetables. He had been made a selectman of North Ashmore; for so young a man he had a standing in the county. But the roots of the old life were still in him. He could remember, as a little boy, going twice a year with his mother to that bleak hill-farm out beyond Sylvester Brand’s, where Mrs. Bosworth’s aunt, Cressidora Cheney, had been shut up for years in a cold clean room with iron bars in the windows. When little Orrin first saw Aunt Cressidora she was a small white old woman, whom her sisters used to “make decent” for visitors the day that Orrin and his mother were expected. The child wondered why there were bars to the window. “Like a canary-bird,” he said to his mother. The phrase made Mrs. Bosworth reflect. “I do believe they keep Aunt Cressidora too lonesome,” she said; and the next time she went up the mountain with the little boy he carried to his great-aunt a canary in a little wooden cage. It was a great excitement; he knew it would make her happy. The old woman’s motionless face lit up when she saw the bird, and her eyes began to glitter. “It belongs to me,” she said instantly, stretching her soft bony hand over the cage. “Of course it does, Aunt Cressy,” said Mrs. Bosworth, her eyes filling. But the bird, startled by the shadow of the old woman’s hand, began to flutter and beat its wings distractedly. At the sight, Aunt Cressidora’s calm face suddenly became a coil of twitching features. “You she-devil, you!” she cried in a high squealing voice; and thrusting her hand into the cage she dragged out the terrified bird and wrung its neck. She was plucking the hot body, and squealing “she-devil, she-devil!” as they drew little Orrin from the room. On the way down the mountain his mother wept a great deal, and said: “You must never tell anybody that poor Auntie’s crazy, or the men would come and take her down to the asylum at Starkfield, and the shame of it would kill us all. Now promise.” The child promised. He remembered the scene now, with its deep fringe of mystery, secrecy and rumour. It seemed related to a great many other things below the surface of his thoughts, things which stole up anew, making him feel that all the old people he had known, and who “believed in these things,” might after all be right. Hadn’t a witch been burned at North Ashmore? Didn’t the summer folk still drive over in jolly buckboard loads to see the meeting-house where the trial had been held, the pond where they had ducked her and she had floated?…Deacon Hibben believed; Bosworth was sure of it. If he didn’t, why did people from all over the place come to him when their animals had queer sicknesses, or when there was a child in the family that had to be kept shut up because it fell down flat and foamed? Yes, in spite of his religion, Deacon Hibben knew… And Brand? Well, it came to Bosworth in a flash: that North Ashmore woman who was burned had the name of Brand. The same stock, no doubt; there had been Brands in Hemlock County ever since the white men had come there. And Orrin, when he was a child, remembered hearing his parents say that Sylvester Brand hadn’t ever oughter married his own cousin, because of the blood. Yet the couple had had two healthy girls, and when Mrs. Brand pined away and died nobody suggested that anything had been wrong with her mind. And Vanessa and Ora were the handsomest girls anywhere round. Brand knew it, and scrimped and saved all he could to send Ora, the eldest, down to Starkfield to learn book-keeping. “When she’s married I’ll send you,” he used to say to little Venny, who was his favourite. But Ora never married. She was away three years, during which Venny ran wild on the slopes of Lonetop; and when Ora came back she sickened and died — poor girl! Since then Brand had grown more savage and morose. He was a hard-working farmer, but there wasn’t much to be got out of those barren Bearcliff acres. He was said to have taken to drink since his wife’s death; now and then men ran across him in the “dives” of Stotesbury. But not often. And between times he laboured hard on his stony acres and did his best for his daughters. In the neglected grave-yard of Cold Corners there was a slanting head-stone marked with his wife’s name; near it, a year since, he had laid his eldest daughter. And sometimes, at dusk, in the autumn, the village people saw him walk slowly by, turn in between the graves, and stand looking down on the two stones. But he never brought a flower there, or planted a bush; nor Venny either. She was too wild and ignorant… Mrs. Rutledge repeated: “That’s in Exodus.” The three visitors remained silent, turning about their hats in reluctant hands. Rutledge faced them, still with that empty pellucid gaze which frightened Bosworth. What was he seeing? “Ain’t any of you folks got the grit — ?” his wife burst out again, half hysterically. Deacon Hibben held up his hand. “That’s no way, Mrs. Rutledge. This ain’t a question of having grit. What we want first of all is…proof…” “That’s so,” said Bosworth, with an explosion of relief, as if the words had lifted something black and crouching from his breast. Involuntarily the eyes of both men had turned to Brand. He stood there smiling grimly, but did not speak. “Ain’t it so, Brand?” the Deacon prompted him. “Proof that spooks walk?” the other sneered. “Well — I presume you want this business settled too?” The old farmer squared his shoulders. “Yes — I do. But I ain’t a sperritualist. How the hell are you going to settle it?” Deacon Hibben hesitated; then he said, in a low incisive tone: “I don’t see but one way — Mrs. Rutledge’s.” There was a silence. “What?” Brand sneered again. “Spying?” The Deacon’s voice sank lower. “If the poor girl does walk…her that’s your child…wouldn’t you be the first to want her laid quiet? We all know there’ve been such cases…mysterious visitations…Can any one of us here deny it?” “I seen ‘em,” Mrs. Rutledge interjected. There was another heavy pause. Suddenly Brand fixed his gaze on Rutledge. “See here, Saul Rutledge, you’ve got to clear up this damned calumny, or I’ll know why. You say my dead girl comes to you.” He laboured with his breath, and then jerked out: “When? You tell me that, and I’ll be there.” Rutledge’s head drooped a little, and his eyes wandered to the window. “Round about sunset, mostly.” “You know beforehand?” Rutledge made a sign of assent. “Well, then — tomorrow, will it be?” Rutledge made the same sign. Brand turned to the door. “I’ll be there.” That was all he said. He strode out between them without another glance or word. Deacon Hibben looked at Mrs. Rutledge. “We’ll be there too,” he said, as if she had asked him; but she had not spoken, and Bosworth saw that her thin body was trembling all over. He was glad when he and Hibben were out again in the snow. III They thought that Brand wanted to be left to himself, and to give him time to unhitch his horse they made a pretense of hanging about in the doorway while Bosworth searched his pockets for a pipe he had no mind to light. But Brand turned back to them as they lingered. “You’ll meet me down by Lamer’s pond tomorrow?” he suggested. “I want witnesses. Round about sunset.” They nodded their acquiescence, and he got into his sleigh, gave the horse a cut across the flanks, and drove off under the snow-smothered hemlocks. The other two men went to the shed. “What do you make of this business, Deacon?” Bosworth asked, to break the silence. The Deacon shook his head. “The man’s a sick man — that’s sure. Something’s sucking the life clean out of him.” But already, in the biting outer air, Bosworth was getting himself under better control. “Looks to me like a bad case of the ague, as you said.” “Well — ague of the mind, then. It’s his brain that’s sick.” Bosworth shrugged. “He ain’t the first in Hemlock County.” “That’s so,” the Deacon agreed. “It’s a worm in the brain, solitude is.” “Well, we’ll know this time tomorrow, maybe,” said Bosworth. He scrambled into his sleigh, and was driving off in his turn when he heard his companion calling after him. The Deacon explained that his horse had cast a shoe; would Bosworth drive him down to the forge near North Ashmore, if it wasn’t too much out of his way? He didn’t want the mare slipping about on the freezing snow, and he could probably get the blacksmith to drive him back and shoe her in Rutledge’s shed. Bosworth made room for him under the bearskin, and the two men drove off, pursued by a puzzled whinny from the Deacon’s old mare. The road they took was not the one that Bosworth would have followed to reach his own home. But he did not mind that. The shortest way to the forge passed close by Lamer’s pond, and Bosworth, since he was in for the business, was not sorry to look the ground over. They drove on in silence. The snow had ceased, and a green sunset was spreading upward into the crystal sky. A stinging wind barbed with ice-flakes caught them in the face on the open ridges, but when they dropped down into the hollow by Lamer’s pond the air was as soundless and empty as an unswung bell. They jogged along slowly, each thinking his own thoughts. “That’s the house…that tumble-down shack over there, I suppose?” the Deacon said, as the road drew near the edge of the frozen pond. “Yes: that’s the house. A queer hermit-fellow built it years ago, my father used to tell me. Since then I don’t believe it’s ever been used but by the gipsies.” Bosworth had reined in his horse, and sat looking through pine-trunks purpled by the sunset at the crumbling structure. Twilight already lay under the trees, though day lingered in the open. Between two sharply-patterned pine-boughs he saw the evening star, like a white boat in a sea of green. His gaze dropped from that fathomless sky and followed the blue-white undulations of the snow. It gave him a curious agitated feeling to think that here, in this icy solitude, in the tumble-down house he had so often passed without heeding it, a dark mystery, too deep for thought, was being enacted. Down that very slope, coming from the grave-yard at Cold Corners, the being they called “Ora” must pass toward the pond. His heart began to beat stiflingly. Suddenly he gave an exclamation: “Look!” He had jumped out of the cutter and was stumbling up the bank toward the slope of snow. On it, turned in the direction of the house by the pond, he had detected a woman’s foot-prints; two; then three; then more. The Deacon scrambled out after him, and they stood and stared. “God — barefoot!” Hibben gasped. “Then it is…the dead…” Bosworth said nothing. But he knew that no live woman would travel with naked feet across that freezing wilderness. Here, then, was the proof the Deacon had asked for — they held it. What should they do with it? “Supposing we was to drive up nearer — round the turn of the pond, till we get close to the house,” the Deacon proposed in a colourless voice. “Mebbe then…” Postponement was a relief. They got into the sleigh and drove on. Two or three hundred yards farther the road, a mere lane under steep bushy banks, turned sharply to the right, following the bend of the pond. As they rounded the turn they saw Brand’s cutter ahead of them. It was empty, the horse tied to a tree-trunk. The two men looked at each other again. This was not Brand’s nearest way home. Evidently he had been actuated by the same impulse which had made them rein in their horse by the pond-side, and then hasten on to the deserted hovel. Had he too discovered those spectral foot-prints? Perhaps it was for that very reason that he had left his cutter and vanished in the direction of the house. Bosworth found himself shivering all over under his bearskin. “I wish to God the dark wasn’t coming on,” he muttered. He tethered his own horse near Brand’s, and without a word he and the Deacon ploughed through the snow, in the track of Brand’s huge feet. They had only a few yards to walk to overtake him. He did not hear them following him, and when Bosworth spoke his name, and he stopped short and turned, his heavy face was dim and confused, like a darker blot on the dusk. He looked at them dully, but without surprise. “I wanted to see the place,” he merely said. The Deacon cleared his throat. “Just take a look…yes…We thought so…But I guess there won’t be anything to see…” He attempted a chuckle. The other did not seem to hear him, but laboured on ahead through the pines. The three men came out together in the cleared space before the house. As they emerged from beneath the trees they seemed to have left night behind. The evening star shed a lustre on the speckless snow, and Brand, in that lucid circle, stopped with a jerk, and pointed to the same light foot-prints turned toward the house — the track of a woman in the snow. He stood still, his face working. “Bare feet…” he said. The Deacon piped up in a quavering voice: “The feet of the dead.” Brand remained motionless. “The feet of the dead,” he echoed. Deacon Hibben laid a frightened hand on his arm. “Come away now, Brand; for the love of God come away.” The father hung there, gazing down at those light tracks on the snow — light as fox or squirrel trails they seemed, on the white immensity. Bosworth thought to himself “The living couldn’t walk so light — not even Ora Brand couldn’t have, when she lived…” The cold seemed to have entered into his very marrow. His teeth were chattering. Brand swung about on them abruptly. “Now!” he said, moving on as if to an assault, his head bowed forward on his bull neck. “Now — now? Not in there?” gasped the Deacon. “What’s the use? It was tomorrow he said — .” He shook like a leaf. “It’s now,” said Brand. He went up to the door of the crazy house, pushed it inward, and meeting with an unexpected resistance, thrust his heavy shoulder against the panel. The door collapsed like a playing-card, and Brand stumbled after it into the darkness of the hut. The others, after a moment’s hesitation, followed. Bosworth was never quite sure in what order the events that succeeded took place. Coming in out of the snow-dazzle, he seemed to be plunging into total blackness. He groped his way across the threshold, caught a sharp splinter of the fallen door in his palm, seemed to see something white and wraithlike surge up out of the darkest corner of the hut, and then heard a revolver shot at his elbow, and a cry — Brand had turned back, and was staggering past him out into the lingering daylight. The sunset, suddenly flushing through the trees, crimsoned his face like blood. He held a revolver in his hand and looked about him in his stupid way. “They do walk, then,” he said and began to laugh. He bent his head to examine his weapon. “Better here than in the churchyard. They shan’t dig her up now,” he shouted out. The two men caught him by the arms, and Bosworth got the revolver away from him. IV The next day Bosworth’s sister Loretta, who kept house for him, asked him, when he came in for his midday dinner, if he had heard the news. Bosworth had been sawing wood all the morning, and in spite of the cold and the driving snow, which had begun again in the night, he was covered with an icy sweat, like a man getting over a fever. “What news?” “Venny Brand’s down sick with pneumonia. The Deacon’s been there. I guess she’s dying.” Bosworth looked at her with listless eyes. She seemed far off from him, miles away. “Venny Brand?” he echoed. “You never liked her, Orrin.” “She’s a child. I never knew much about her.” “Well,” repeated his sister, with the guileless relish of the unimaginative for bad news, “I guess she’s dying.” After a pause she added: “It’ll kill Sylvester Brand, all alone up there.” Bosworth got up and said: “I’ve got to see to poulticing the gray’s fetlock.” He walked out into the steadily falling snow. Venny Brand was buried three days later. The Deacon read the service; Bosworth was one of the pall-bearers. The whole countryside turned out, for the snow had stopped falling, and at any season a funeral offered an opportunity for an outing that was not to be missed. Besides, Venny Brand was young and handsome — at least some people thought her handsome, though she was so swarthy — and her dying like that, so suddenly, had the fascination of tragedy. “They say her lungs filled right up…Seems she’d had bronchial troubles before…I always said both them girls was frail…Look at Ora, how she took and wasted away I And it’s colder’n all outdoors up there to Brand’s…Their mother, too, she pined away just the same. They don’t ever make old bones on the mother’s side of the family…There’s that young Bedlow over there; they say Venny was engaged to him…Oh, Mrs. Rutledge, excuse me…Step right into the pew; there’s a seat for you alongside of grandma…” Mrs. Rutledge was advancing with deliberate step down the narrow aisle of the bleak wooden church. She had on her best bonnet, a monumental structure which no one had seen out of her trunk since old Mrs. Silsee’s funeral, three years before. All the women remembered it. Under its perpendicular pile her narrow face, swaying on the long thin neck, seemed whiter than ever; but her air of fretfulness had been composed into a suitable expression of mournful immobility. “Looks as if the stone-mason had carved her to put atop of Venny’s grave,” Bosworth thought as she glided past him; and then shivered at his own sepulchral fancy. When she bent over her hymn book her lowered lids reminded him again of marble eye-balls; the bony hands clasping the book were bloodless. Bosworth had never seen such hands since he had seen old Aunt Cressidora Cheney strangle the canary-bird because it fluttered. The service was over, the coffin of Venny Brand had been lowered into her sister’s grave, and the neighbours were slowly dispersing. Bosworth, as pall-bearer, felt obliged to linger and say a word to the stricken father. He waited till Brand had turned from the grave with the Deacon at his side. The three men stood together for a moment; but not one of them spoke. Brand’s face was the closed door of a vault, barred with wrinkles like bands of iron. Finally the Deacon took his hand and said: “The Lord gave—” Brand nodded and turned away toward the shed where the horses were hitched. Bosworth followed him. “Let me drive along home with you,” he suggested. Brand did not so much as turn his head. “Home? What home?” he said; and the other fell back. Loretta Bosworth was talking with the other women while the men unblanketed their horses and backed the cutters out into the heavy snow. As Bosworth waited for her, a few feet off, he saw Mrs. Rutledge’s tall bonnet lording it above the group. Andy Pond, the Rutledge farm-hand, was backing out the sleigh. “Saul ain’t here today, Mrs. Rutledge, is he?” one of the village elders piped, turning a benevolent old tortoise-head about on a loose neck, and blinking up into Mrs. Rutledge’s marble face. Bosworth heard her measure out her answer in slow incisive words. “No. Mr. Rutledge he ain’t here. He would ‘a’ come for certain, but his aunt Minorca Cummins is being buried down to Stotesbury this very day and he had to go down there. Don’t it sometimes seem zif we was all walking right in the Shadow of Death?” As she walked toward the cutter, in which Andy Pond was already seated, the Deacon went up to her with visible hesitation. Involuntarily Bosworth also moved nearer. He heard the Deacon say: “I’m glad to hear that Saul is able to be up and around.” She turned her small head on her rigid neck, and lifted the lids of marble. “Yes, I guess he’ll sleep quieter now. — And her too, maybe, now she don’t lay there alone any longer,” she added in a low voice, with a sudden twist of her chin toward the fresh black stain in the grave-yard snow. She got into the cutter, and said in a clear tone to Andy Pond: “‘S’long as we’re down here I don’t know but what I’ll just call round and get a box of soap at Hiram Pringle’s.” The post PseudoPod 738: Bewitched appeared first on PseudoPod.
38 minutes | a month ago
PseudoPod 737: Workday
Author : Kurt Fawver Narrators : Scott Campbell, Karen Bovenmyer, Chelsea Davis, Graeme Dunlop, Alex Hofelich, Brian Lieberman, S. Kay Nash, Kitty Sarkozy, Kaz and Timothy Menzel Host : Alex Hofelich Audio Producer : Marty Perrett Discuss on Forums “Workday” first appeared in Shadows and Tall Trees 8 which was published by Undertow in March 2020 Reviews by Alex Hofelich for Shadows and Tall Trees 8 from Undertow Publishing and A Carnival of Chimera by Stephen Woodworth from Hippocampus Press. Workday by Kurt Fawver MEMO CORIVDAN INCORPORATED To: All Hourly Employees From: Human Resources Subject: Holiday Party Attendance Date: Nov. 20, 2018 Please RSVP to the holiday party by Friday afternoon. The event will be held the evening of December 21. Our caterers need an exact count of the number of people attending so that we don’t run out of food and refreshments. We will have a buffet-style meal and an open bar throughout the night. Please remember also that attendance at the holiday party is mandatory for all employees. Thank you, and we look forward to seeing you there. Message scrawled in permanent marker in the unisex restroom on the twelfth floor of the Corivdan Building. Found Nov. 20, 2018. Painted over Nov. 21, 2018. DO NOT attend the holiday party. You are all in grave danger. By working at Corivdan Inc. you’ve put yourself in the sights of a monster. Stay away from the party. YOUR LIFE DEPENDS ON IT. MEMO CORIVDAN INCORPORATED To: All Hourly Employees From: Jonathan Chadwick, Executive V.P. Subject: Holiday party Date: Nov. 21, 2018 I want to personally invite you to this year’s holiday party. 2018 has been a massive success for the company. We posted our highest earnings EVER in back-to-back quarters and topped Corivdan’s best year to date. None of it would have been possible without you and your work. You’re the lifeblood of the company and you deserve to be celebrated, which is why we insist you come! On tap for the party we have a full buffet, an open bar all night, karaoke, special prizes, and some surprise entertainment! It’s going to be a blast! I can’t wait to see you all there. And, again, thank you for continued excellence in your work. Fragment of essay found taped to the microwave in the mailing department break room of Corivdan Incorporated. Found Nov. 26, 2018. The QO Murders: A Conspiracy of Wealth In December of 1898, a pair of pheasant hunters stumbled upon twenty-five dead bodies in the forests outside the smoke-shrouded limits of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The sheer obscenity of so much unexplained death in one location would have been sufficient to make the discovery notable, but the corpses also exhibited bizarre and unexplained modifications. To wit, each of the bodies had its eyes scooped out and replaced with silver dollar coins; all the fingers of every body had been cut off and rolls of dollar bills had been stuffed into the gaping stumps; and when authorities attempted to move the deceased, they found the task nearly impossible, as the corpses weighed several times more than they should have. Ultimately, it took four stout men to lift each one of the bodies onto the wagons that transported them to the city, where they were examined by doctors and law enforcement officials. Autopsies revealed that the internal organs of the deceased had been entirely removed and their remaining hollow cavities packed full of gleaming, freshly-minted pennies. The back of each penny, despite its newness, bore two machine-cut capital letters—Q and O—that obliterated the “Indian head” design that adorned all pennies at the time. The amount of money stuffed into the bodies totaled exactly the same in every case: 210 dollars and 21 cents—an amount that would equal over 6,000 dollars today. No one doubted that what happened to these individuals must have been murder, yet an investigation into the crime never began. City police filed a report concerning the incident, but declined to assign any officers or detectives to collect evidence from the crime scene, identify the victims, or interview potential witnesses. Sheriffs in the outlying municipality where the bodies were found also turned a blind eye to the murders, choosing to delegate all responsibility to city officials. Newspapers, though especially hungry for audacious stories in the late 19th century, barely covered the murders, writing of them in the abstract. Reporters mentioned few of the more remarkable details about the bodies’ mutilations and implied that the deaths were potentially self-inflicted or accidental. Editors buried any stories of the murders deep within their rags’ pages, well beyond the attention of casual readers. Without media attention, the murders soon became little more than hearsay. Why police or journalists seemed uninterested in investigation of the murders remains unknown, though there is some evidence that forces working behind the scenes squelched inquiry into the incident. Certain powerful and moneyed industrialists and bankers such as J.P. [remainder of essay missing, page torn in mid-sentence] MEMO CORIVDAN INCORPORATED To: All Hourly Employees From: Human Resources Subject: Holiday Party RSVP Date: Nov. 27, 2018 This is a reminder that Holiday Party RSVPs are now open and can be returned by email or personally dropped off with Jaylen Vernor in HR. We welcome you to invite spouses, partners, and significant others, but make sure to include their names in your RSVP under “Guest.” The more, the merrier! Photocopied note left under windshield wipers of cars parked in the Corivdan Building parking garage. Found Nov. 28. They care about you as a fire cares about its kindling. Their celebration is not for you, but for the act of feeding the insatiable QO. You are neither the gift giver nor the gift receiver, but the gift itself. Resign now. Do not come back tomorrow. You do not have much time. MEMO CORIVDAN INCORPORATED To: All Employees From: Human Resources Subject: Holiday Party Prizes Date: Nov. 28, 2018 After several inquiries into the nature of the holiday party prizes, we’ve decided to give you a preview of what you could win. Included among the prize pool will be: – box seat tickets to this year’s Super Bowl – two additional paid weeks of vacation time – full personal use of a company BMW or Mercedes-Benz for a year – cruise tickets to the Bahamas – personal chef service for three months – newest gen smartphones and smartpads – and more exciting prizes yet to be revealed. This is our biggest employee celebration in company history! Everyone will win! Attendance is mandatory, but believe us when we say you’ll definitely want to be at the party! Email sent to all email accounts ending in the corivdan.com domain. To: Corivdan Employees From: email@example.com Date: November 29, 2018 Subject: 1926 Baltimore Massacre In August of 1926, a nameless crabber checking his traps in Baltimore’s inner harbor discovered that one of the traps had snagged on something in the bay and would barely budge. A poor man, he had no funds to replace the trap, so he worked at hauling it from the depths for hours. When he finally heaved it out of the water, he found it entangled with a length of sparkling gold cable, and that the cable led to an object beneath the surface that he’d partially dredged up—a statue of some sort, he thought, human as it was in shape and reflective as polished metal. The crabber enlisted the aid of other fishermen in the area and, together, they worked to raise the “statue.” Once rescued from the sea floor, the nature of the object became no clearer. It was gold—that much was obvious—but if it was a statue, it was the most poorly executed statue in the history of sculpture, as the figure possessed a vaguely human form but lacked any notable features other than the letters Q and O stamped upon its chest in ornate calligraphy. Further, the gold cable that connected the crab trap to the statue extended back into the murky depths, hinting at further discoveries. The crabber notified authorities of his find, imagining it might be of historical significance, if not monetary value. When experts from local universities examined the statue, however, they realized it was not a statue at all. Rather, it was an impromptu sarcophagus, a solid gold shell poured over a human body. The revelation of a corpse within the gold tomb triggered a police response, and soon the area of the bay where the body had been found was scoured by police and Coast Guard divers. What they uncovered beneath the waves was another thirty-five statuesque bodies, all bound together at their ankles like a chain gang, all bearing the QO stamp on their golden prisons. The gilded manacles and metallic shells weighted the bodies to the sea bed and made recovery of the deceased difficult, but, with the help of barges and cranes, authorities managed to lift the petrified dead from their watery repose within a week. After recovery, coroners and medical examiners determined that the bodies had been in the bay for less than a month, though more accurate dating was impossible. They also found even more gold inside the airways of every corpse, which implied, horribly, that the deceased had been covered in molten metal while alive and had breathed in the scorching ooze. They agreed that the gold overlay—whether by burning or suffocation—was the cause of death for each and every person reclaimed from the bay, and that Baltimore police clearly had, therefore, a mass murder on their hands. Given that experts in precious metals estimated the total worth of the gold shells and cables to be well over ten million dollars, no one was brave enough to venture a guess as to who could have committed the murders. Only the ultra-wealthy had the means to pull off the crime, and no one in the Baltimore PD wanted to anger the wrong multimillionaire. Before any sort of serious criminal probe could even be launched, though, agents from the Bureau of Investigation—the FBI’s precursor—arrived in Baltimore and asserted jurisdiction over the murders. Agents from the BOI collected all evidence in the possession of the Baltimore police and set it under a high-level security clearance which only BOI investigators could obtain. They squelched the flow of information from the police to the news media, as well, so that the murders received little public recognition. Rumors concerning “the golden dead of the harbor” circulated in bars and shadowed docks, but nowhere else. The massacre slouched into the realm of folklore and urban legend. People, preoccupied by their daily routines and their struggles to make a decent living, soon forgot about the “golden dead” and their mystery. Questions remain, though. Who committed the murders? Who were the victims? Why did the BOI step in and seal off the case from both local PD and the general public? The only detail of the incident that may provide a clue is the stamp on every golden casket, the stamp bearing the letters QO. MEMO CORIVDAN INCORPORATED To: All Hourly Employees From: Tyler Vine, Head, Information Technology Subject: 1926 email Date: Nov. 30, 2018 Do not open an email with the subject line 1926 Baltimore Massacre, as it contains malware that will infect your computer and the Corivdan network. If you have already opened it, please contact your supervisor so we can address the issue further and review your computer’s software. I would also like to remind everyone that company email addresses should not be used for non-Corivdan business. Giving Corivdan email addresses to third parties can result in unwanted spam emails such as the “1926” mailing, which often contain threats to the security of our network and information databases. Continued use of company email for non-company purposes can result in reduced compensation or dismissal. Thank you for your attention in this matter. Series of professionally printed and laminated signs placed at intervals along roadway leading to Corivdan Incorporated. First seen December 2, 2018. All signs removed by December 4, 2018. At any given moment, police and the FBI have over 150,000 active missing persons cases. Inactive missing persons cases in the U.S. number well over 600,000. Almost all missing persons come from middle and lower-class backgrounds. Fewer resources are spent searching for missing persons with lower incomes. This is the reason serial killers frequently use impoverished and “transitional” neighborhoods as hunting grounds. Even middle-class missing persons are low priority cases, though. When’s the last time you heard about the brutal murder of a millionaire? A person without any significant wealth or fame is a no one in this country, and their disappearance merely verifies their status. The acolytes of QO count on you to be no one. It makes your disappearance so much easier. Don’t satisfy them. Don’t let them come for you. Quit Corivdan now. MEMO CORIVDAN INCORPORATED To: All Hourly Employees From: Marshall Everington, CEO, Corivdan Inc. Subject: Bonuses Date: Dec. 3, 2018 Everyone, I’m pleased to announce that we will be presenting bonus checks at the holiday party. As many of you know, we broke all our previous earnings highs for the 2018 fiscal year. Revenue streams are up across every division of the company and expenditures are at a record low. Corivdan is flourishing. Bonuses are a small way to say “thank you” for the part you play in the company’s success. Every hourly and salaried non-executive employee will receive their bonus at the party. You are all the real currency of Corivdan, and I want you to know how much you’re valued. I look forward to seeing you at the party. Text of audio clip left as voicemail for various Corivdan Inc. employees. Voicemails created overnight Dec. 5, 2018. All Corivdan company voicemail reset Dec. 6, 2018. [Incomprehensible screams] [Chorus of voices]: Great QO, Exalted Infinite Hunger, Father of Mammon, Mother of Moloch, we call upon you to expand our worth, our reach, and our power. We now give you your due, knowing that these souls are but motes of dust in your limitless vault and that your share of all things is gloriously ever expanding. [More screams. Sharper, louder.] [Chorus of voices]: We pay your fair tribute, great QO, so that you might help us prosper and grow deep with your hunger. We thank you for the expanses you carve within ourselves and the hoards you provide us without. Allow us to possess this world as you possess us. In your name, QO, we ask for more. In your image, always more, always more, always more. [A sound like many coins clinking as they spill from a container.] [Wet, tearing noises, followed by gasps, sobs, and more screams.] MEMO CORIVDAN INCORPORATED To: All Employees From: Allison Mendel, Acting Head, Information Technology Subject: Renovation of voicemail system Date: Dec. 6, 2018 This message is to let you know that all voicemail was deleted last night as part of a scheduled system upgrade. You can still access your voicemail as usual and should notice no changes other than a quicker retrieval time of messages. If you need to recover any important voicemails that were purged, please see me in the IT department for approval, as Tyler has been relieved of his duties. One of our technicians will be able to restore any necessary messages. Thank you for your understanding and cooperation in this matter. Newspaper article found encased in lucite and glued to the concrete facade of the Corivdan Building next to every entrance. First appeared Dec. 10, 2018. Construction crews removed the articles by Dec. 11, 2018. Over Seventy Workers Missing in Fire November 11, 1954 Toledo, OH—Overnight, the Owens Manufacturing plant south of downtown burned to the ground. At the time, more than seventy second-shift employees were at work in the building. None have been located or identified yet. The plant, which produces engine parts for automobile manufacturers including Ford, Chevrolet, Mercury, and Studebaker, exploded in a blazing ball of green flames near midnight. A chemical explosion is suspected as the cause of the blaze, though fire marshals have also suggested the possibility of arson. According to eyewitnesses, the fire engulfed the plant almost instantly and the flames remained bright green for the duration of the fire. Some bystanders claimed to see gold flecks in the flames, as well. A few also claimed to hear terrified screams and, in a strange turn, raucous laughter as the plant burned. One witness said that, “It almost sounded like a group of people were chanting at one point, but I don’t know where it was coming from or I couldn’t hear it, as loud as the fire was.” John Lyons, President of Owens Manufacturing said in a statement early this morning that, “Everyone at Owens is devastated by the tragedy. We offer our thoughts and prayers to the families of all our workers in this difficult time. Rest assured that we will do everything in our power to take care of everyone connect with the Owens community.” Owens Manufacturing employs more than two thousand workers. The second-shift employees at Owens who were at the plant last night are largely comprised of non-union laborers without life insurance or pension plans. Names of the missing have not yet been released. Losses to Owens Manufacturing and its parent company, the Quentin-Owens Corporation, which owns steel manufacturing plants in Pittsburgh and Baltimore, are estimated to be over ten million dollars. The losses may be recouped through insurance, though. “The facility was insured for a very significant sum, so we’re sure that we will rebuild and be back up and running soon,” said Owens Vice-President Paul Boyle. “We won’t abandon our workers and the city of Toledo.” MEMO CORIVDAN INCORPORATED To: All Employees From: Carlos Perilla, Head of Security Subject: Recent Vandalism Date: Dec. 11, 2018 Good day. Given the recent vandalism of Corivdan property, I want to make sure all employees are aware of the procedures for reporting suspicious activity. If you spot anyone attempting to deface or destroy company property, please do not intervene personally. Instead, take a video or picture of the person in question and call security at extension 7810. If safe to do so, remain near the scene until someone from security arrives. If you see defaced property, please note the location and manner of defacement and report it to security at the same extension. We want to insure a safe and positive work environment, so please don’t hesitate to contact us when you spot a potential act of vandalism. Messages found printed on toilet paper rolls and paper towels in all restrooms within the Corivdan Building, Dec. 12, 2018. All paper products removed and replaced by Dec. 13, 2018. Corivdan Inc. began operations in 1976 as Corivdan Holdings. Corivdan Holdings did not fare well and, by 1983, was on the brink of bankruptcy. In 1984, three Corivdan mailroom employees were killed by a workplace shooter carrying a gold-plated shotgun using shells filled with diamond buckshot. The identity of the shooter, who killed himself after the murders, remains unknown. In 1985, Corivdan acquired SunTrust Bank and Dekker & Dekker Loans, consolidating under the Corivdan Inc. title. The acquisitions made Corivdan over 250 million dollars at the time and led to more than 5 billion in profits in the following thirty years. In 1991, six Corivdan interns went missing during a team building exercise in the Catskills. All were presumed drowned in a rafting accident, though their bodies were never found. In 1992, Corivdan Inc. merges with Quentin-Owens Inc., formerly the Quentin-Owens Corporation. By the end of the decade, the merger nets profits of over 7 billion dollars for both entities. In 2003, Corivdan posts record highs for yearly profits. It opens a branch office in Orlando, Florida. The following year, the Orlando building collapses due to substandard construction. Fifteen employees are killed in the collapse. No one can explain why the deceased show bruising on their wrists and ankles, nor can anyone explain why all the deceased are found wearing finely tailored suits stuffed with stacks of hundred-dollar bills. Corivdan donates the found money to the families of the victims. It collects insurance payouts of over 75 million dollars on the building. It sues the construction agency, the city of Orlando, and the state of Florida for damages. Corivdan wins its suits and collects another 200 million in awards. The families of the deceased file similar lawsuits and also win. Their payout is less than 10 million, split over all plaintiffs. In 2004, Corivdan constructs the Corivdan Building outside Cincinnati, Ohio. It is a state-of-the-art business facility. The company again posts record profits for the year. In 2018, Corivdan breaks a billion dollars in profit for the fiscal year for the first time. QO must be paid again. MEMO CORIVDAN INCORPORATED To: All Employees From: Human Resources Subject: Waste management Date: Dec. 14, 2018 Please note that trash will not be taken out this weekend as the janitorial staff is experiencing heavy employee turnover. If a waste bin in your office or workspace is overflowing, you may dispose of its contents in the dumpsters outside the east wing exits. We apologize for the inconvenience. Skywriting above Corivdan Building and vicinity. Seen Dec. 17, between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. YOU HAVE FOUR DAYS QO IS COMING IT WILL TAKE ITS DUE QUIT NOW RUN MEMO CORIVDAN INCORPORATED To: All Hourly Employees From: Human Resources Subject: Holiday Party Date: Dec. 18, 2018 A reminder that the mandatory company holiday party will be held from 7 p.m. to midnight this Friday in the conference center (3rd floor, west wing). The response to the party has been tremendous. Over 90% of you have RSVP’d and many others have confirmed attendance verbally or by email. Needless to say, everyone at Corivdan will be at the party for the food, drink, dancing, and prizes! And don’t forget, there will be special entertainment and surprises! We can’t wait to see you there! Spray painted message found on the walls of the Corivdan Building’s parking garage, Dec. 20, 2018. The final line of the message ends in what may be a dark red paint spatter. Last chance. Their kind has been around since the dawn of time. Their god has been around even longer. You can’t win by sitting at their table and playing their game. Do not believe them. They control all the rules. If you stay, you are doomed to [message cuts off here] MEMO CORIVDAN INCORPORATED To: All Employees From: Carlos Perilla, Head of Security Subject: Security Incident Date: Dec. 20, 2018 Early this morning, security reported an incident in the parking garage where an armed individual was caught committing an act of vandalism. Security engaged and subdued the perpetrator with only minor injury to themselves. Police and medical personnel were called and have dealt with the situation. If you see any additional police presence in Corivdan today, please lend them your full support. Thank you for your cooperation. MEMO CORIVDAN INCORPORATED To: All Employees From: Marshall Everington, CEO, Corivdan, Inc. Subject: Holiday party Date: Dec. 21, 2018 Remember to arrive by 7 p.m. this evening for the holiday party. Enter through the west wing entrance, as all other entrances and exits will be locked at 6. Tonight is going to be very special. I can’t wait to see all of you there. Happy holidays! The post PseudoPod 737: Workday appeared first on PseudoPod.
49 minutes | a month ago
PseudoPod 736: Lifeblood
Author : Lee Murray Narrator : Heath Miller Host : Alasdair Stuart Audio Producer : Marty Perrett Discuss on Forums “Lifeblood” was first published in Grimdark Magazine, edited by Adrian Collins and was republished in Lee Murray’s first collection Grotesque: Monster Stories. From the afterword: “‘Lifeblood’, with its mean-spirited prejudice towards immigrants, pits one marginalised group against another in grim-dark tale of poverty and desperation. Information about the 1898 Kauri Gum Industry Act and the government’s monstrous persecution of immigrant and native labour can be accessed on New Zealand’s national archives.” Review for Grotesque: Monster Stories by Shawna Borman, with review by Places We Fear to Tread by Josh Tuttle, with both read by Josh Tuttle. Lifeblood by Lee Murray Nikola Silich drove his gum-spear into the ground and let it stand upright while he bent to lift the clod from the ditch. Crouched in the trench, he weighed the blackened lump in his hand, then rubbed at it with his thumbnail. What would he find beneath the grunge? Would there be a droplet of the kauri’s lifeblood, a golden bead of tree-sap petrified for years and years beneath the soil and turned as dark and rich as good wine? His heart skipped and he breathed deep, his nostrils filling with the smoke of burning manuka bushes. In his head, he whispered, Please, let it be good. The size wasn’t bad. Not massive – Nikola had heard tell of a slab of gum the size of three well-fed men – but it was big enough to cover Nikola’s palm. Shaped like a half-moon, it was encrusted with debris. It would need lots of scratching and scraping by the fire to free it of its rind before Perkins, the storekeeper, would condescend to swap it for supplies. Taking out his penknife, Nikola gouged the surface of the nugget, cutting away a patch for a better look. Underneath the grime, the resin was golden and pure. Nikola smiled. These Northland swamps were full of kauri amber, and all you had to do was dig it up. British and Americans couldn’t get enough of it for polishing their fancy carriages, although they needed deep purses, because the copal was fetching a colossal £43 per ton. He chuckled. It certainly beat being back home in Vrgorac, where the grapes were rotting on the vines. His stomach growled. Where was Perkins? Still no sign of the storekeeper’s wagon. No matter. Nikola’s day was made. Even after paying the week’s bills, there’d be enough to buy him a good bit of lamb. He’d get himself some tea; soap too. A few more nuggets like this one and he’d have enough to send home for a bride. Furtively, Nikola glanced about him. The Chinaman was digging for gum just twenty yards off. His head bent to the task, he wasn’t looking Nikola’s way. Good. Working quickly, Nikola knocked the biggest clumps of dirt off his prize, slipping the nugget into the pikau-sack slung over his shoulder before he straightened. The gum fields were full of scum: runaway militiamen and drifters, but there was something especially unnerving about that Chinaman with his slanted eyes and wide smile. He was everywhere and nowhere at once. A dark scurrying thing, like a roach. Nikola didn’t trust him. “Look out,” said his friend and compatriot, George Unkovich, from an adjacent trench. “Here comes trouble.” Nikola looked up. A couple of the local constabulary were making their way across the scrublands. The pair skirted the patches of manuka burn-off, walking with the swagger of men accustomed to getting their own way. Word about the settlement said the younger one was decent enough, but his senior, a fat balding man named Carter, was a mean-arse son of a bitch. George slapped the dust from his trousers. “Now, what do you reckon they’ll be wanting?” “Dunno. Guess we’re about to find out.” Whatever it was, it wasn’t good news; Nikola had never seen them carry arms before. He freed his spear and climbed out of the trench. “You there! Dallys,” the constable said. “You need to clear off.” Nikola started. “What? Why?” he sputtered. “We’re not bothering anyone.” Carter sniffed. “It’s the Kauri Gum Industry Act, lad. Came into force yesterday, didn’t it? So if you want to work here, you’re going to need to get yourself a licence.” “What’s this about a licence?” asked Milos Vasyl, joining them from another ditch. “We never needed one before.” “You gotta see Perkins at the store,” the young constable said. “He’ll give you a paper to sign. Then you pay over a quid, and Bob’s your uncle.” “Bob’s your uncle,” George echoed. Except it wasn’t that simple. A pound was a lot of money, even for a gumdigger. And Nikola still had bills to square. Squinting, he looked across the swamp at the men still at work. “You kicking everyone off? Or just us Dalmatians?” The younger man lowered his eyes. “We’re telling everyone,” he mumbled. “What about the Chinaman?” “We’ll be getting to him,” Carter said. “I don’t see the Brits leaving,” Nikola replied. Carter raised the ancient musket and pointed it at Nikola. “You giving me trouble, Austrian?” “No trouble here,” George said quickly. He clasped Nikola’s shoulder, holding him back. “A pound, though,” George said, sucking air through his teeth. “You have to admit, that’s lot of money.” The constable shrugged. “Not my problem, is it? I don’t make the laws, sonny. I just enforce them. Anyway, you should count yourself lucky.” He jerked his head toward the Chinaman. “The government makes their lot pay a hundred quid before they’re even allowed off the boat. Prime Minister Seddon won’t let them bring their wives with them, either. Good thing, too, or the country would be overrun with the yellow devils…” Gripping his spear, Nikola stepped towards the trench. “We’ll see Perkins for your licences later.” Carter fired the musket at the sky. The roar split the air, making Nikola’s ears ache. All around them, men looked up from their work. “If you want to dig gum, you’ll see Perkins now,” Carter said when the smell and the noise had died away. His voice was calm, but the menace remained. “You want us to go right now?” George asked. His jaw twitched. Carter tilted his head to one side. “It’s like I said: the law’s the law, isn’t it?” It was close to an hour’s walk into town. They’d never make it back before the sun went down. Seemed they were done for the day. While Milos went off to spread the word, Nikola and George collected up their belongings. They didn’t have much: a spear and spade each, and the pikau-sacks they carried on their shoulders. The constable and his man hovered near the ditch. When Nikola and George were about to leave, Carter stepped out in front of them. “Leave the bags, Dallys.” Nikola made to move around him. “No. We’ve little enough. What’s in here is mine.” But the fat constable shifted his finger on the trigger. “What’s in there is stolen goods. You dug up that gum without a licence.” “It’s only one day’s takings!” George complained. Carter thrust the barrel at George’s stomach. “Yes. Be a shame to die for a day’s takings.” His nostrils flaring, George gave in, scattering his gum on the ground. “There, you can have it, but I’m keeping the bloody bag.” “Now yours,” Carter said, swinging the musket towards Nikola. Nikola frowned. “Take it from him, Jones,” Carter said, jerking his head. “Yes, sir.” Lifting the sack off Nikola’s shoulder, Jones took out the moon-shaped nugget and gave a low whistle. “Nice.” “Right now, clear off,” Carter said. “Don’t come back without a licence.” Perkins’ store was still open. Squeezing inside, Nikola and George filled out the form. It was hard to know what they were signing; Nikola’s English was better than George’s and, even so, he only knew half the words. They waited in line behind the men, some of them waiting on licences, others ordering spades, salt, bacon, even a new pair of boots. By the time they reached the front, the afternoon sun was burning orange-gold streaks across the planked floors. Nikola slid his paper across the counter of rough-cut Kauri – polished with wear. Perkins flicked his eyes over the words. “That’ll be a quid,” he said. “I haven’t got it,” Nikola replied. “Gum?” “No,” Nikola said, thinking of the moon-shaped nugget. “I’ll owe you the money.” Perkins pushed the paper back. “Can’t help you, sorry.” Nikola shook his head, incredulous. “Why not? I’ll pay the normal interest, same as I always do.” “Not any more. You Dallys are too much of a risk.” George elbowed his way forward. “What risk? We work as hard as anyone,” he said. Perkins scratched at his nose. “Makes no difference if the plots have already been worked over. Naturalised New Zealanders – the Brits and the Maori – they get the new plots, those who can afford the paperwork. Dallys and Chinamen get what’s left. I reckon there won’t be much left to find, and if you don’t find any gum, I don’t get paid.” Nikola shivered. The British were forcing them out. “Hey, if you’re not trading, move out,” someone shouted from behind. Nikola thrust the paper at the storekeeper. “Help us, then,” he pleaded. “Give us a good plot.” Perkins waved to the next man in the line, gesturing him forward. “It’s not up to me,” he said to Nikola. “If you don’t like it, take it up with the government.” “You know us,” Nikola insisted. “We always pay…” But Perkins was done with them, already talking to the next man. They made the long walk back to the camp, following the ever-present mists of burning manuka. Their tent was just one of a hundred or more makeshift dwellings clustered on the edge of the gum fields, most nothing more than huts and bivouacs made from branches and bracken. The mood in the settlement was grim. True to their word, Carter and Jones had chased everyone off the field, even the Brits. One man had already acquired the precious licence. A group crowded about him, demanding to see it. “What’s it say?” one asked. “Read it out,” said another. The man who owned it couldn’t read, so Milos Vasyl did the honours, but nobody could glean anything new from it, so the men ambled away, off to their fires to drink, scrape gum, and tell stories. The Chinaman was sitting beside his campfire, his head bent scraping gum. Nikola’s breath caught. Wait! He’d seen that moon-shaped nugget before. “Hey, where did you get that?” He strode across the campground and snatched it out of the Chinaman’s hands. The Chinaman jumped to his feet. “Not mine, not mine,” he said, dropping the knife and reaching for the nugget. “Did you steal it?” Nikola roared. “No, I no steal. I scrape for policeman.” “This is my nugget.” The Chinaman bowed. “No, no. Police nugget. Police give to me. I clean for them,” he said. “Leave it,” George said in Nikola’s ear. “It’s not his fault. Here, let’s just get some food, eh?” “It’s my nugget. He stole it,” Nikola said, but there was no conviction in it. George was right: it wasn’t the Chinaman’s fault. You couldn’t blame a cockroach for scuttling. Nikola released the gum, forcing the Chinaman to scrabble on the ground for it. When he stood up, he gave Nikola a sour slanty-eyed look, then returned to his spot by the fire. “There’s plenty of gum still in the ground,” George said, putting a heavy arm around Nikola’s shoulders. “I’ve got some stashed away. I’ll trade it for the licence, then I’ll work the plot they give us, and you can scrape any gum I find. Just until we get back on our feet.” It was a decent offer and a kind one, yet Nikola couldn’t help glowering as his friend led him away. Nikola waited in line, his hat pulled forward on his head, and wiped a rag over the nugget’s surface. Even in the gloom of the store, the kernel gleamed like a new sovereign. This piece had been the last in the basket. Their last income, until George carried more gum home from the gum fields. Nikola prayed his friend had better luck today. “Next.” Nikola stepped forward, handing the nugget over the counter. Perkins lifted it to the light and his eyes widened. “I’ll give you a loaf of bread and knuckle of lamb for it.” “What? It’s worth three times that,” Nikola said. “That’s my price.” “It’s robbery, that’s what it is.” The storekeeper gave him a wolf’s smile. He held out the gum. “Take your nugget, then. You can always walk to the docks. See if you can get a better price there.” Nikola kept his hands in his pockets. “There’s no meat on that knuckle,” he protested. Perkins shrugged. The bastard. The dock was a half-day’s walk, and Perkins knew starving men don’t haggle. In the month since licences were introduced, the storekeeper had grown fat on the gumdiggers’ misery. Nikola imagined him soaking his bread in bacon dripping, grease sliding down his chin… Nikola’s stomach churned, the juice souring in his belly. It didn’t do to think about food, not when you hadn’t eaten since yesterday. Glaring at Perkins, he grabbed the bread and stepped outside into the scorching sun. The loaf was stale, but Nikola put his nose to the crust anyway and sniffed deep. It smelled heavenly. Saliva pooled under his tongue and he almost fainted with longing. Instead, he tucked the loaf into his pikau-sack out of sight. He mustn’t eat it. He had to save it for George. You couldn’t dig gum on an empty stomach, and the gum was their lifeblood. Grasping a handful of gum leavings from his pocket, he rolled them in his palm, then stuffed the clod in his mouth, chewing on the salty resin to stave off his hunger on the hot walk back to the settlement. When he arrived, Carter and Jones were there again, stopping by to hand more confiscated gum to the Chinaman, and to take away their newly polished nuggets. The Chinaman held something up, displaying his handiwork. Nikola’s blood boiled. Why would they trust their gum to the Chinaman? The cockroach was eating better than he was. Nikola hovered in the alley. “I could scrape that gum for you,” he said, when Carter and Jones passed by. His stomach burned with shame. “I’m a hard worker.” Carter just laughed. “Sure,” he said. “I’ll keep you in mind.” The pair sauntered away. The sun had set when George returned from the gum fields. He was too tired to wash. Slick with sweat and grime, he gobbled up the dense bread, washing it down with big mouthfuls of lamb broth. When he’d finished, he wiped his chin with his hand. “You’re not eating?” “I already ate,” Nikola lied. “You don’t get hungry scraping gum. How did you do today?” George dropped his eyes and waved a hand towards his pikau. “Nothing much. Just some peas.” Nikola opened the sacking bag and his heart sank. Even polished into diamonds, the tiny grains weren’t big enough to buy even half a loaf. He’d have to wait another day before going to the store. Fear seized him. What if the same thing happened tomorrow? What if the plot was empty and George was turning the earth over and over for nothing? “No matter,” Nikola said brightly. “You’ll do better tomorrow.” He could have saved his breath because George was already asleep. Nikola licked out the pan, slurping up the dregs of broth, but the emptiness clawed at his guts. He lay awake for long hours in the darkness. With so little gum to scrape, and none to sell, Nikola had no choice but to follow the Maori women into the forest to forage for food. He wasn’t the only one; several of his compatriots had joined the group and he caught sight of the Chinaman through the trees. So, scraping Carter’s confiscated gum wasn’t enough for him… One of the Maori women snipped a spiral fern frond off its stem with her fingertips and put it into her flax basket. Good. The plant was edible. Nikola didn’t wait; he broke off three fronds and ate them raw. While he was eating, the woman cracked open a rotting log and lifted out a fat white grub. She dangled it in his face. Nikola shook his head. Grinning, the woman bit the creature’s head off, chewing it even as it wriggled. She handed him the remainder of the grub. Nikola swallowed back bile and stepped away. “You get hungry enough, these grubs are pretty tasty,” Milos Vasyl said, taking the morsel from the woman and putting it in his own mouth. Nikola barely recognised the man. As thin as a spade handle, Milos had tied a strip of flax around his waist to keep his trousers up. The Maori woman had gathered up the last of the larvae and was hurrying after the other womenfolk. “There’s a river about a mile in,” Milos said. “They’ll be going to check their eel traps.” Together, they followed the women deeper into the trees, stray branches brushing at their thighs. “George is still working the plot, then?” Milos asked after a while. Nikola nodded. “Any luck?” Nikola sniffed. “Some of us are heading to the port tomorrow,” Milos said. “You can join us if you like.” “You’re looking for work there?” Milos exhaled. A long breath. “We’re going home. There’s nothing for us here now.” “How will you pay?” “We’ll work our passage.” Nikola’s heart thumped. Could he leave George and return to Vrgorac? The vines had failed. He might be going home to starve. “George might find something today,” he said finally. “Sure,” said Milos. They passed under a grove of thick-trunked kauri, their feet sinking in the swampy ground. Nikola looked up. The trees were as tall as a ship’s mast, their branches as wide as they were tall. “Look at that,” Nikola breathed. Up high, out of reach on the stippled trunk, was a boulder of golden resin as big as Nikola’s torso, the result of an old injury, perhaps a branch broken off in a storm or by a bolt of lightning. If only he could reach it. A clump that size would fetch him an entire side of beef at Perkin’s store. Nikola sucked in a breath and it was as if the scent of the gum had cleared his head. These were kauri trees. They were full of gum. All you had to do was score them, and the trees would bleed. Why waste time digging when you could cut the trees and take what you wanted? Running to the nearest trunk, Nikola pulled out his blade. Milos snatched at his sleeve. “Don’t.” Puzzled, Nikola shook him off. “Why not?” “Because the kauri are protected. If Carter catches you bleeding one, he’ll lock you up.” “Look at us, Milos,” Nikola said, breathless with excitement. “We’re starving. You can hardly hold your pants up. So, we take a little gum. Who’s going to know?” “It’s not just the police. The Maori say bad things happen if you hurt the trees. The gods get angry.” Nikola rolled his eyes. “That’s just talk. Anyway, they dig for gum like everyone else.” Milos plucked at a fern and nibbled on the tip. “It’s not the same.” “How is it not the same?” Milos peered through the bush at the departing women. “The kauri in the swamp are dead; these trees are alive.” Nikola stared at him. “They say the gods punish you,” Milos whispered. “Years ago, there was a bleeder who lived in the settlement. He did all right for a while, before the gods came for him. Then he disappeared.” “Maybe he decided to go home.” Milos shook his head. “He was cursed. Climbed up a tree to get a nugget like the one above us. But the gods stole his rope and he got stuck there. Loggers found his skeleton when they felled the tree.” Nikola scoffed. Lack of decent food was affecting the man’s brain. “You don’t really believe that. It’s just a story.” Milos spat out a green husk. “It’s their country, isn’t it? Their gods.” “What if we make a little cut? A tiny scratch just big enough to make the sap flow, but not enough to hurt the tree.” “There’s a bounty,” Milos said absently. Nikola felt his eyes narrow. Would Milos report him for the money? The man was little more than a skeleton, with big gaunt eyes and hollowed-out cheeks. Hungry men did desperate things. Why risk it? Milos would be gone tomorrow. Nikola gave his compatriot a solemn nod. “You’re right. It’s their country. No need to upset the gods, is there?” He put a hand on Milos’ back and steered him away from the massive trunk. “Let’s get after those women and see if we can score ourselves a fish head, shall we?” On the way back from the river, Nikola stole away from the group. He selected a kauri well back from the others and chose a spot down low, hidden by a clump of fern. He didn’t believe Milos’ superstitious prattle, but he wasn’t about to get caught either. He’d make a little nick and squeeze out just enough gum to get himself a good meal and a licence. Who would know? Checking there was no one about, he took out his knife and set it against the wood. Blunted by a month of scraping gum, the knife slipped on the bark, gouging a chunk out of the tree and slicing deep into his palm. Nikola sucked air in over his teeth. Dark red blood welled in the gash and sap melted into the wound, the mixture turning red-gold. Biting back the pain, Nikola pressed his bloody palm to his trousers to staunch the flow. Already, the nick in the tree was beaded with golden sap. Despite the throbbing in his palm, Nikola felt a surge of hope. At this rate, the kauri would deliver him a nugget the size of a coconut in just a few days. Let’s see Perkins try and give him a loaf of stale bread then. Two men carried George back from the gum field. He was burning up with fever. Sweat pooled beneath his arms and on his brow, yet he shivered beneath the thin blanket. Nikola lifted his head and fed him a sticky broth of fish and fern roots, but either the food was too strange, or his friend was too sick, because George vomited it up again. Milos’ voice buzzed in Nikola’s ears. The gods will punish you. The gods will punish you. Nikola ignored him. Bleeding the kauri had nothing to do with George’s illness. It was a coincidence, nothing more. That night, as he slept on the ground beside his friend, Nikola had a nightmare: a tattooed warrior stole up behind him and sliced his throat with his greenstone club. Only, in the dream, blood didn’t gush from the wound. Instead, it beaded in the gash, dribbling slowly down his neck in a red-gold thread. He awoke to George’s moaning. In the morning, George was no better, so Nikola became a gumdigger again, leaving George in his bed, while he went to work the plot. The land was a sorry sight, the earth pitted with holes, evidence of a month of fruitless searching. Nikola’s palm throbbed where he’d sliced it, and his head buzzed with the heat, but he stabbed his gum-spear into the ground and felt for the tell-tale tug of the resin beneath the blade. There was nothing. He was too weak to bury the blade in the dirt, the spear merely sliding across the surface. He lifted the shaft and stabbed again, his head swimming. All he needed was a decent nugget he could sell for real food, so George would get better. Then Nikola would harvest the resin trickling from the tree, and everything would be fine again. The spear slipped, just missing his foot. Nikola giggled. A blurry figure appeared on the horizon. Nikola’s pulse thrummed. The warrior? No, it was the policeman. Carter. He was there in an instant. “What are you doing here, Silich? This isn’t your claim.” Nikola looked up, squinting against a blaze of pink light. “It’s George’s claim. He’s sick, so I’m working it for him.” “That’s what you say. How do I know you’re not stealing from him?” Nikola’s throat tightened, the pink fading. “George is my friend. You can ask him.” Carter raised the gun. “I could, but it’s easier to make you leave. Tell you what, I’ll let you keep your sack this time, since there’s obviously nothing in it.” He grinned. Nikola didn’t have the energy to fight him. He could barely lift his spear. He shuffled off, trailing the blade in the dirt. Someone followed him home. Carter maybe. Or the other one. Nikola was sure he could hear bare feet slapping behind him on the hard-packed dirt. “Who’s there?” he said, stopping to look back. His heart leapt, and he tightened his grip on the spear. The wound in his palm throbbed, red-gold blood oozing down the shaft, making it slick. It was the warrior from his dreams. Covered in fearsome tattoos, the man was crouched in the road, the muscles in his thighs rippling. The warrior screamed and brandished his greenstone club at Nikola, his tongue lolling out the side of his mouth. “What do you want?” Nikola shouted. But the warrior was gone in the hazy drift of manuka smoke. Beside the track, the brush stiffened and rattled in the wind. The gods will punish you, Milos whispered. Except Milos and the others had left for the port this morning. Nikola turned and spied the Chinaman through the smoky mist. Had it been him following Nikola all along? What did he want? And why was he slipping into the forest? Nikola shuddered. His skin prickled. Did the Chinaman know about Nikola’s kauri? Of course he did. The Chinaman was everywhere. He was planning to steal Nikola’s treasure. He’d stolen the big moon-shaped nugget. Nikola had seen him with it, whittling away at it in the firelight. Well, he won’t be stealing from Nikola again. The pain in his hand flaring, Nikola pushed through the prickly manuka. The Chinaman was tricky. He pretended he was searching for food, stopping here and there to pinch off the spiral fern tips. Sometimes he’d pause to watch the birds flit about in the trees. Nikola wasn’t fooled. He was heading for the grove of kauri. To the tree Nikola was bleeding. Nikola frowned. That gum was for him and George. By the time Nikola returned, the nugget would be enormous. Nikola would sell it to Perkins at the store. He’d get two licences. Three. Good plots, too. Not barren bits of dirt that had already been picked over by the British. He and George would employ their countrymen to work the land. Maybe they’d get Milos to be their foreman. Why not? They’d be pulling so much gum out of the ground, they’d be able to send home for wives for everyone. The spear hadn’t pierced the ground at the gum fields, but it made easy work of the Chinaman’s thigh, the blade slicing through the artery at the top of the man’s leg. Nikola pushed the blade home, slicing lengthwise. Blood sprayed from the gash. So much blood. Pink haze flooded Nikola’s vision, the spurt of liquid mesmerising him. The Chinaman slumped, his mouth opening and closing like a fish. His fingers flailed, searching for the edges of the wound. It was too late. The gush was already slowing, the thick clots of blood seeping into the ground. Nearby, the leaves rustled. Nikola looked up. Crouched low in the bracken, the warrior was watching him. He grinned at Nikola, but he made no move to stop him. Grinning back, Nikola rifled through the dead man’s pockets and found the moon-shaped piece of gum. He held it up to the light. The Chinaman had whittled it into a fantail. Nikola burst into the tent. “George, see what I’ve found. My nugget, only now it’s a bird. Just look at the size of it—” He stopped still. There were three men in the tent: Carter, Jones, and George. Of the three of them, only George didn’t look at him, staring instead at the roof with dull, blank eyes. “Your friend’s dead,” Jones said. And people said the younger one was decent. Nikola’s lip trembled. His hand opened, and the bird tumbled to the ground. It was only then that he saw his clothes were covered in blood. “Jesus wept,” Jones said. “That’s the bird Yee was carving for me,” Carter said. “Grab him, Jones!” Nikola turned on his heel and ran. One thing about being thin; it makes a man nimble. He flew through the forest, easily outstripping the constable, but not the warrior, who was following him again. No matter. Nikola didn’t plan to stick around long. Just as soon as he’d harvested his gum, he’d go to the port and buy himself a passage home. Maybe even catch up with Milos. He found the grove of kauri, and the tree, circling to the spot where he’d scored the bark. He sucked in a breath. The drizzle of sap had grown to the size of a man’s heart, the nugget hanging off the trunk like a perfect drop of honey. All he had to do was cleave it off. Nikola kneeled on the swampy ground. He took out his knife and sliced at the edge of the nugget, each stroke loosening the amber but also causing him to sink a little more. By the time he’d prised the nugget free, Nikola was chest deep in the earth. He tossed the nugget up on higher ground and put his hands on the edge to pull himself out. The side of the hole broke away. He tried again. The edge crumbled. He was dizzy with exhaustion. He didn’t have the strength to haul himself out. His body quivered with terror. He would drown here, petrified in the swamp like an ancient piece of gum. Unless… He twisted to look at the warrior watching from the bank. “Help me,” he gasped. Grinning, the warrior stood up and extended his club, beckoning to Nikola to grasp its flattened end. Relief flooding him, Nikola lunged for it. But instead of pulling him out, the warrior swung the club and slashed it across Nikola’s throat. Nikola’s eyes widened as his lifeblood welled in the gash. I told you the gods would punish you, Milos said again. The warrior-god stepped forward, placed his foot on Nikola’s shoulder, and pushed him beneath the swampy ground. The post PseudoPod 736: Lifeblood appeared first on PseudoPod.
37 minutes | a month ago
PseudoPod 735: The Slow King
Author : Tim Major Narrator : Simon Meddings Host : Alasdair Stuart Audio Producer : Marty Perrett Discuss on Forums “The Slow King” originally appeared in the 2020 Anthology The Fiends in the Furrows 2: More Tales of Folk Horror. Reviews by Christi Nogle and read by Kat Day for The Fiends in the Furrows 2: More Tales of Folk Horror edited by David T. Neal and Christine M. Scott and the Gordon B. White collection As Summer’s Mask Slips and Other Distruptions. The Slow King by Tim Major Campbell’s dad watched him from beyond the cordon, through the gap between catering vans. Reluctantly, Campbell raised his hand – a motionless salute rather than a wave – but his dad’s eyes continued to scan from side to side. Campbell jammed his hands in the pockets of the padded gilet he had been forced to wear. He surveyed the collection of makeshift tents. Their interiors glowed red with light from large electric bar heaters. “Excuse me,” he said to a middle-aged woman hurrying in the other direction, “do you know where Laine is?” “Kid, I don’t know where anyone is.” The woman brandished a folded sheet of paper. “But if I don’t get these new lines to Kier’s trailer in the next few minutes then I’ll be taking a turn up there myself.” She nodded at the two metal cages that hung from the tree at the foot of the hill. They were the shapes of birdcages but each big enough to hold a person. A stepladder had been placed below one of them and a man in a day-glo tabard was testing the metal bars of the cage. Campbell trudged across the space between tents, where boardwalks with raised treads had been placed over the wet grass. He wondered how long he’d have to stay before he could legitimately return to his dad and say that he hadn’t been needed after all. His dad wouldn’t be happy. This was a big opportunity, he had said. “Is there anything I can do to help?” Campbell turned in the direction of the voice. This woman was young but the lines on her forehead suggested she was a natural worrier. Her wide eyes made Campbell imagine her as a burrowing creature unused to direct light. “I was looking for Laine,” he replied. “Laine Owen?” The woman laughed, though not unkindly. “You do realise how in demand he is right now?” Campbell shrugged. “Sorry,” she said. “Why would you know that? Stupid Ruth. I don’t talk to children often.” She held out her hand. “I’m stupid Ruth.” “I’m Campbell.” He shook her hand, enjoying the maturity of the action. She tilted her head. “Really? How appropriate. Anyway, you’ll have your work cut out if you want to speak to Laine – he’s got folks lined up to get his approval on any number of decisions. And directors just love making people wait. It’s all a power trip. What do you need him for? He’s not your dad, is he?” “He came to my school. Him and a woman, but I don’t know her name. He asked if any of us wanted to be in his film and then he ended up picking me.” Her face lit up. “Really? That’s pretty cool. I was told I could be in it too, but the only thing on offer was ‘flirtatious wench’ and I told them it just wasn’t me. But I’m hoping I’ll end up at the back of a crowd scene at some point. Is that what you’ll be doing too? Or is it a part part?” Campbell felt his cheeks glow. “It’ll sound like a big thing when I say it, but it isn’t. I don’t have to speak. I’ve never acted before, except in the school nativity.” “Hit me.” “Apparently I’m going to be the ‘Slow King’.” Ruth’s wide eyes became even wider. “Serious?” “That’s what Laine Owen said.” “You’re the eponymous Slow King?” Campbell grimaced. His dad used long words like that, then got crabby when Campbell didn’t follow. “What does that mean?” “Shit. Sorry, I’m just demonstrating my ineptness with kids, aren’t I? And sorry for saying ‘shit’ too. You’re too young for that sort of language.” “I’m twelve.” “Yeah.” She sucked her cheeks. “’Eponymous’ means giving your name to something. I’m guessing you haven’t been told the title of the film yet?” “I wasn’t told anything. They got in touch with my parents and my dad sorted it all out.” “The film’s called The Slow King.” They looked at each other for a while. “Don’t go quiet on me, kid,” Ruth said. “You’re my only friend here.” Campbell blinked. “I was just wondering whether maybe it was the title that got Dad interested. He always says that films are rubbish these days. But ‘slow king’ is sort of our joke because it’s what we call chess.” “That’s not much of a joke.” “All right, not a joke. But I called chess ‘slow king’ back when my dad taught me how to play, because the king can only take one step at a time. I was only maybe four, though.” “He taught you to play chess when you were four?” Ruth said with a smirk. Campbell nodded and thrust his hands back into his pockets. “Dad thinks it’s important to learn new skills and get really good at them. He says life demands a lot and you have to be prepared.” The way Ruth was looking at him made him feel uncomfortable. He blew on his hands and folded his arms. “We’d best announce you,” she said, turning. “Hey! Anita! I present to you the Slow King.” A woman in a nearby tent, who was sitting on a canvas chair and leafing through a stack of papers, looked up. Her eyes travelled over Ruth and then Campbell without interest. “Didn’t you hear? Everything’s delayed. Laine woke up this morning with a thunderclap of an idea which I’ve no no doubt must be evidence of artistic genius, but which also means everything’s been back-to-front from the off. We’re not doing the Slow King scene ‘til one at the earliest.” Campbell looked at his watch. It was only half past ten. Ruth rolled her eyes. She gave the woman a half-hearted thumbs-up, then put an arm around Campbell. “You brought your parents along with you, I suppose?” “My dad. Even though he said he can’t imagine anything worse than hanging around on a film set.” “Sounds like a riot, your dad. Let’s go find him.” When they returned to the cordon, Campbell could see no sign of his dad. The car was gone too. “Don’t fret,” Ruth said. “He’ll have popped into town, assuming you’d be busy for a while.” Campbell nodded uncertainly. “How about you and I hang out while we’re waiting for your big scene?” she said. “Don’t you have things you need to do?” Ruth gave a hollow laugh. “Hardly. I’ve been given the grand title of Historical Adviser, but from day one it’s been clear that an accurate depiction of eleventh-century society isn’t precisely what floats Laine’s boat. There are three stunt coordinators on set, for goodness’ sake. The most dramatic sort of event in Yorkshire in 1020 would have been, I don’t know, a fight over a pig. Commoners weren’t all performing parkour in their spare time. Anyway, I’m being paid to hang around on set but I swear nobody’s asked my opinion even once – so a little company is more than welcome, Campbell.” A thought occurred to him. “Why did you say my name was appropriate, before?” Ruth grinned. “Come on, Slow King. I’ll show you.” The metal boardwalks continued beyond the tents and trailers, leading to the foot of the hill. The man in the day-glo tabard was now standing at the foot of the stepladder, holding it steady as another person climbed up. The climber shrugged off his long duffel coat. Underneath he wore only a tattered loincloth and his body was covered in lesions and mud. He hunkered inside the metal birdcage, pulled the door to, shuffled on his haunches a little and then gave a double-thumbs-up to the man standing below. Further along, Campbell saw the roofs of shacks. As he and Ruth climbed the hill a group of people came into view, standing in the centre of the ring of tumbledown huts. They wore rough, dark outfits and their boots sunk into the thick mud. A cameraperson weaved in and out of the crowd, followed by a gaggle of people wearing wellington boots, thick jackets and woollen hats. A tall man holding a long pole with a microphone attached to its end reached over the heads of the other crew members, glancing down every few seconds to avoid losing his footing. Ruth pointed at two people in the middle of the group of pretend villagers. “What did I tell you? They’ve both got fucking swords, for pity’s sake. Sorry again for swearing.” “And that isn’t how it would have been in the year 1020?” “There’d have been no need for them. Farm tools, yes. Swords? No chance. And I’ve seen those things up close, at the props tent. They both look like Excalibur or the Sword of Grayskull or something. Worth more than everything else in the village combined. Un-bloody-believable.” But she was grinning, all the same. Campbell decided that he liked her very much. “Anyway,” she said. “Don’t pop your head up again, otherwise you’ll be in shot and we’ll be in trouble. Over here’s what I wanted to show you.” Further around the base of the hillock the slope became more pronounced, forming a natural passageway between the hillside and an area of sparse woodland. Campbell wondered whether the cart tracks on the ground had been made naturally, or whether the production team had created them for the film. “They’ve been using this bit of track for filler scenes of journeys,” Ruth said. She pointed at the side of the path. “There, take a look at that.” A large shard of stone protruded from the ground, a marker stone for travellers. Campbell bent to read the place names inscribed upon it. A violent shudder passed through his body. He reached out a finger to trace the letters. It wasn’t real stone – perhaps fibreglass. “You okay?” Ruth said. “I thought you’d get a kick out of it.” Campbell rose. He turned to her but couldn’t speak. Ruth pointed in the direction from which they had come. “See, that village is modelled after Campbell – or rather, the village that would later be known as Campbell. The sign’s inaccurate because the settlement was so tiny it didn’t even have a name in 1020, though that’s the least of the historical facts that have been ignored on this film. Anyway, so you’ll be Campbell the Slow King, in The Slow King, set in Campbell. Neat.” “But what about the other place?” Campbell said. His throat was dry and his voice didn’t sound like his own. Ruth frowned and looked at the two place names written on the fake marker stone. “They only built one of the villages for the film. Coombes is the next town along.” Campbell shook his head. “But it’s my name.” Ruth stared at him as though he were an idiot. Campbell gestured helplessly at the marker stone, indicating the top place name and then the bottom one. “Campbell Coombes. That’s my name.” Ruth laughed, then stopped abruptly. “Really?” “Really.” “That’s… wow. I can’t begin to imagine what the chances might be. You don’t have links with Yorkshire, do you? Ever been to the East Riding, or have any family up there?” Campbell shook his head. “I don’t think so.” Ruth exhaled and rubbed her chin. “Weird, huh?” “Yeah. Weird.” “You said your dad—” “Yeah. Maybe my dad knew. Maybe he already told me. I don’t always listen properly. My dad says sometimes it’s like I’m just not there.” Ruth nudged his elbow. “Hey. You seem all right to me. And nobody listens to everything their parents say. What are you interested in?” “I play lots of chess, and I’m having piano lessons—” “That wasn’t what I asked.” Campbell puffed his cheeks. “I like stories.” “Let me guess. Your dad doesn’t approve?” “He buys me information books. How the world works. He says I have to be prepared to be an expert in everything, if I want to make a success of my life. He says if I get myself properly ready there’s nothing to stop me ruling the world.” “Hmm. What kind of stories?” “Old ones. Stories about way back. Myths and legends.” “All right. Now you’re talking my language.” “But I’ve never heard about the Slow King. Is it real?” “It’s a real story, which I suppose is what you mean. It’s mentioned in hardly any books, to be fair. That makes these coincidences even stranger…” She trailed off, then shook her head. “My guess is that with this boom in Folk Horror films, they’ll scour the history books for every last superstitious ritual Britain has to offer. Your man Laine thinks he’s the next Piers Haggard.” Campbell nodded, though he barely understood what she had said. “Then what’s the story?” Ruth linked arms with him and pointed along the path. “Let’s keep walking. The story of the Slow King is barely anything at all, but compelling all the same. A thousand years ago – it’ll be literally one thousand years next year, when this stupid film will be thrust upon the cinema-going public – the residents of the-village-that-would-be-Campbell and the surrounding settlements suffered what I guess you might call a shared hallucination, a mass hysteria… Sorry, no, that’s my analytical brain speaking. The actual story is that for whatever reason the population believed that one person among them was special – so special and so strange that he shouldn’t be forced to live among them, or even live in the same era as them. They weren’t idiots – they knew that their lives were close to meaningless, little more than basic survival. It seems they couldn’t bear the thought that this special one among them would be forced to eke out the same kind of existence.” “What was special about the boy?” Ruth smiled. “You’re way ahead of me. Yes, this person was a boy. And it wasn’t recorded quite what was so unusual about him. There are hints, though my Old English isn’t too hot. I suppose nowadays you’d phrase it as the boy being ahead of his time.” “And they called him the Slow King.” “The name came later. Myths are created by the accrual of details and elaborations. The villagers didn’t necessarily call him anything at all, when they conducted the ceremony.” Something registered in the periphery of Campbell’s vision. He strode ahead, past tall metal poles topped with chunky unlit lamps. A bright yellow JCB blocked the path, the scoop on the end of its long arm lowered towards the hillside. Campbell thought it looked like a brontosaurus grazing. “The team were way behind schedule digging it out,” Ruth said. “They finished during the night, hence the floodlights.” Campbell kept walking until he stood facing the hillside where the digger’s scoop touched. It had taken bites out of the earth, creating a hollow that was head height at its outer part, but became lower the further back it went. Campbell crouched but couldn’t see all the way in. “Is this where they did the ceremony?” he said. Ruth’s voice seemed to come from far away. “Sure. This is the recreation of the location. You can visit the real thing in the East Riding. I did try to explain that to Laine, but he was taken with the idea of all the location work being in this one spot. Probably there are a ton of financial reasons for that.” “And they put the boy in here?” Campbell said. Everything seemed to be growing darker, the longer he looked into the hollow. “Why?” “Because the world wasn’t ready for him yet.” “Because he was the Slow King.” Campbell swallowed. His throat hurt, as though it was scalded. “What were they hoping would happen?” “That he would be preserved ready for his right time.” “He’d get up and walk out of there?” “It was more convoluted than that. They expressed it in strange ways. It wasn’t so much as him rising, like Jesus after the crucifixion. They said the boy himself would ‘bring him into life’. Does that make sense?” Campbell didn’t turn from the hollow. “He would make himself alive again, just using his mind?” Ruth hesitated before replying. “I suspect that this boy – whoever he was – his specialness may have been his ability to describe unusual things. Back then, sages were essentially storytellers. That would explain this assumed ability to simply imagine himself into being, when the time came.” Seconds passed in silence. “But Campbell, none of that means— Oh hell.” Campbell rose and turned. “What? What’s wrong?” Ruth was staring up at the sky, her hands shielding her eyes. It was only now that Campbell realised that clouds had covered the sky and that it was raining. He shivered. “The forecast was clear all week,” Ruth said. She groaned. “This’ll set things back. Let’s dash back to the tents and see what the damage to the schedule will be.” Campbell glanced at the hollow. Ruth was hopping from foot to foot, her body hunched. Her mousy brown hair had already turned black with wetness. “You go,” Campbell said. “I’ll be along in a sec. I don’t mind rain.” “Sure?” “Yeah.” She hesitated. “Aren’t I in loco parentis right now, or something? I’m sort of responsible for you.” Campbell put his hand on her shoulder and squeezed it. “I’ll catch up with you. I promise.” Ruth frowned at his hand, but nodded slowly. “Okay then. Don’t be an idiot and catch hypothermia, because then they’ll pick another boy to bury.” With that, she turned and scurried back along the path. Campbell crouched once more before the hollow and ignored the rain. He barely remembered the long walk home. His dad’s car hadn’t reappeared. Campbell didn’t have a mobile phone and had never memorised either of his parents’ numbers. He was shivering from the cold as he trudged into the cul-de-sac. Rainwater made rivers that snuck under his shining gilet, his jeans were stiff with wetness and his feet squelched every time his shoes made contact with the pavement. Both of his parents’ cars were parked in the driveway to number 12. Even if his dad had been shopping in town, why had he returned here rather than the film set? He plodded up the steep driveway and onto the doorstep. He tried the handle but the door was locked. He had never been trusted with a key. He pushed the doorbell. He waited twenty seconds, then pressed it again. There were lights on in the sitting room. The rain was too loud for him to hear the chime of the doorbell. Maybe the battery was flat. He rapped on the glass panel of the door, then again, louder. He padded around the porch and into a narrow flowerbed, then pushed himself onto his tiptoes to peer through the window. His house was at the top of a rise, and from this low angle he could only see lampshades and the top of the wall-mounted flatscreen TV. He jumped into the air and landed with a nauseating slapping sound, his trainers sinking into the soil of the flowerbed. In that brief glimpse he had seen figures. They were in the conservatory which adjoined the sitting room. Sighing, he tramped to the wooden gate at the side of the house. It was locked too. With some difficulty he scrambled up the sheer surface, using the hinge brackets as footholds. The upper edge of the gate was rough; splinters dug into his hands. He dropped down on the other side, landing badly and falling to the wet concrete. He tasted blood in his mouth – he had bitten his tongue. Wincing at the stinging sensation in his mouth and in the palms of his hands, he limped along the side of the building. The back garden was impossible to make out in the growing gloom. Wasn’t it only early afternoon? There must be a storm coming. He should get inside as soon as possible. The light coming from the conservatory made a yellow halo on the surrounding paving stones. Through the glass walls Campbell could see three figures. His mother stood in the archway that led to the sitting room. Her arms were folded and she was watching two people who were seated opposite one another in wicker chairs, both looking down at a chess board on the coffee table between them. At the far side was Campbell’s dad. His hands were raised in a prayer pose. His index fingers smoothed his moustache again and again. It was his thinking posture. Campbell couldn’t tell who the other player might be. From the rear it appeared he was male, with short, fair hair. He was shorter than Campbell’s dad, and leaner. The stranger reached forward and moved one of the chess pieces. Campbell stumbled forwards. He rapped on the glass just as thunder sounded overhead. Inside the conservatory, the heads of his mum and dad and the stranger all shifted to glance at the roof. Campbell still couldn’t see the stranger’s face. He knocked again. Nobody inside reacted and he couldn’t hear the sound himself. He waved his arms, trying to get the attention of his mother and father, both of whom were facing more or less in his direction. Neither responded. Campbell strode onto the lawn. Now he stood perpendicular to the chess players and directly opposite his mother. The unknown chess player was a child, perhaps around Campbell’s age. His head was bowed to the chess board. “Mum!” Campbell yelled. But her eyes continued moving between her husband and the boy. “Dad!” His father tapped his lips twice, reached out to move a chess piece, then sat back in apparent satisfaction. Campbell squinted at the boy. Was it one of his friends from school? He tried to think who might have called for him. He was shocked to realise that no names came to mind – of anyone in his class, let alone any of his friends. Getting drenched must have made him ill. He should be in bed. Suddenly he felt very afraid. He launched himself at the glass wall of the conservatory, battering on it with a fist. His dad looked up again. Then he turned to Campbell’s mum and said something that Campbell couldn’t hear. His mum nodded and shielded her eyes to stare at the sky, shaking her head. The boy seemed unaffected. He reached out a thin arm and moved one of the black chess pieces, then plucked one of the white ones from the board. Campbell was surprised to see that only the black king now remained. Then, without any particular show of satisfaction, the boy turned from the chess board and looked out into the garden. Where the boy’s face ought to be was only a blurred streak, as though he were staring at Campbell from behind a rushing waterfall. The woman gripped Campbell’s neck, forcing him to look up at her. Campbell stopped struggling and allowed her to continue dabbing at his face. She must be nearly finished. If Laine had explained that he would have to undergo all this time in make-up, Campbell would never have agreed to take the part. “When will—” The woman hushed him. He had forgotten to ask her name. Like Ruth, she must have been offered a part in the film. Her hair was matted and her face was plastered with fake grime. He waited for her to finish. “When will it be time for my scene?” She nodded patiently. Campbell looked up at the black sky. “It was supposed to be one o’clock. Wasn’t it supposed to be a daytime scene? Wasn’t that what the director wanted?” The woman only frowned at him. The canopy that had been erected at the foot of the hillside was doing nothing to keep out the chill wind. Campbell wished that he had been offered one of the padded coats that reached to your feet, or at the very least the silver survival blankets that he seen the principal actors wearing around their shoulders between takes. His ragged shirt and hessian trousers weren’t lined for warmth, and goosebumps had sprung up on every part of his body. “Where’s Ruth?” The woman shrugged. “Laine?” The woman pointed over Campbell’s shoulder. He turned, but the path was in total darkness. “But I haven’t been told what I should do.” The woman produced a cup and lifted it to his lips. He realised that he was very thirsty. He took a sip, but immediately spluttered and shook his head wildly until she took the cup away. The liquid wasn’t hot but it had scalded his mouth and throat and left an awful, bitter taste. He saw movement and looked up to see moving sources of light. What he had taken to be floodlights were actually flaming torches. The make-up woman backed away into the darkness. Campbell reached up to touch his face surreptitiously, not wanting to ruin the effect and have to endure the application of make-up all over again. His fingers came away sticky and dark. He rubbed the substance between his fingertips, then raised them to his nose. They smelled like blood. Figures descended the hillside, stumbling on the slippery grass. The torches they carried illuminated other people, who surrounded Campbell. How long had they been standing there in silence? They all appeared to be extras – at least, Campbell didn’t see any of the lead actors: not Kier Franklin, who people said was a famous West End actor, and not Janice Eddington, who apparently had had a small part in one of the Harry Potter adaptations. He could see no crew members either, and no cameras. One man strode forward at the front of the dozen or so new arrivals. He had a tangled beard and he held a heavy-looking wooden staff. “Is he prepared?” he said in a deep, scratchy voice. Campbell was struck by the odd idea that these weren’t the man’s precise words, but only the sense of them. “He is ready.” “I don’t know if I’m ready, though,” Campbell said. “I don’t really know what I’m supposed to do. Nobody’s spoken to me at all.” “You have spoken and we have listened,” the man replied in his strange flat tone. “That is all that is necessary.” “But I’m not even a speaking part,” Campbell said, his arms wide. “My dad said all I had to do was show up and be the Slow King. And I think he should probably be here right now, but his car’s gone and I…” A vision came into his mind. He saw himself returning to his house only to find himself replaced with another boy. When had he fallen asleep, to dream that dream? In a quieter voice he said, “I’d like to see Ruth, please. She said something about loco parentis.” The circle of extras shuffled inwards. The man with the beard held his flickering torch at arm’s length. It shone on the hollow cut into the steep hillside. Where the JCB had stood was a tall tree. Its bent branches mimicked the arm and scoop of the machine. The extras continued shuffling. Campbell moved, too, in order to remain in the centre of the ring. The idea of allowing any of them to touch him seemed unbearable. “Laine Owen came to my school,” Campbell said weakly. “He said I’d be taken care of. My mum and dad wouldn’t have agreed to this if they knew I’d be left here without a… a…” A word he had heard on school trips occurred to him, though he was startled to find that he had no mental image of any school trip in particular, or the school building, or his teachers. “Chaperone.” The bearded man’s lips parted to reveal filthy-looking teeth. “We do not understand your words, but we will fulfil our duties.” Campbell’s eyes darted. Was it possible that the cameras were just beyond the circle, just beyond the firelight? Was it possible that this was the Slow King scene, right now? He had heard of filmmakers who sprung scenes on their actors at odd moments, to make the reactions seem less rehearsed. But even if that was the case, this was surely wrong. He was only twelve years old. “I shouldn’t be left here alone,” he said. The man hesitated, then said, “These are your own wishes.” “I don’t want this.” “In your tales you spoke of the need for this act. We are your servants.” The man gestured with the torch, casting firelight onto the faces of the assembled people. Their faces were pockmarked. Amid the muck, Campbell saw scars and open wounds. “We are your servants,” they all said together. “I shouldn’t be left here alone,” Campbell said again, helplessly. An idea seemed to occur to the bearded man. “You will not be alone, my lord.” The words triggered something within Campbell. He began to cry. The circle of people drew tighter around him. The man with the tangled beard held up the torch to guide Campbell towards the hollow. Campbell looked around at the actors. Their faces were harder to discern now, streaked through his tears. He bowed his head. He took a step backwards into the hollow, pressing himself against the damp earth. He crouched and then stretched his legs into the narrow part of the opening. His stomach dragged against the soil. He pushed himself into the dark. The light of the torches diminished as the first handful of earth was thrown into the opening. Campbell heard singing or perhaps moaning. He dropped his face to the black soil. He prepared himself for the long wait. The post PseudoPod 735: The Slow King appeared first on PseudoPod.
47 minutes | 2 months ago
PseudoPod 734: Anatomist
Author : Couri Johnson Narrators : Graeme Dunlop and Kitty Sarkozy Host : Alasdair Stuart Audio Producer : Chelsea Davis Discuss on Forums “Anatomist” first appeared in Orba/Artifact and was reprinted in her 2020 collection I’ll Tell You a Love Story. Review by Kitty Sarkozy for I’ll Tell You a Love Story the 2020 collection by Couri Johnson. Review by Shawna Borman for The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror: Volume One edited by Paula Guran. Both reviews read by Graeme Dunlop. Anatomist by Couri Johnson After the earthquake, she goes out collecting bones. It’s easy enough. The ground of the graveyard has been split open, caving in near the center in a deep pit, from which several fissures run off in all directions. Like how a child draws a star. Or maybe like an asterisk. One to be tacked onto the sentence Rest in Peace*. (*Unless the dirt decides maybe it’s too good for you one day, and spits you back up.) All around the crags, the ground is littered with bits of coffins, femurs, collarbones, and jaws. Teeth clustered like cigarette butts outside bars. She pockets these and can hear them rattle when she walks. Every now and then she slips a hand in and runs them through her fingers. The rest she gathers on a blanket and rolls up to carry fireman-style over her shoulder. She can only carry so many at a time, but she doesn’t mind. It’s good to get out of the house. It’s good to have a hobby. Her tapes say so. She steps too close to the edge of the pit and looks down. It goes deep. Deep-deep. So deep the darkness seems to take on mass. The dark looks solid enough to crawl out of the hole. To maybe say something. To maybe speak her name. “Hello?” she says, and her voice bounces off its dirt walls before being muffled into nothing. She waits a moment, bent at the waist with an ear cocked towards the pit, but it doesn’t reply. She sucks all her saliva to the back of her throat and hawks a loogie into it. The boy hated stuff like that. Like when she had tried to spit into the mouth of a bass in a river below. Gross, he called it. She feels embarrassed but misconstrues it for pride. “It’s rude not to respond,” she tells the pit. She gathers her bones in her arms and picks her way between the fissures, out of the graveyard. The FEMA man said that the building she lives in is mostly undamaged. That’s subjective, she thinks. Part of the earth underneath the foundation crumbled so it sits at a slant. The same goes for the identical apartment building next to it. They’ve slumped together, their roofs resting against each other’s like twin sisters dozing off in the back of a car. She had always wanted a twin. She thought a twin would come with a built-in permanent bond, and maybe telepathic powers. She may have thought the snuggling apartments were cute in their sleepy togetherness. She may have envied them. But it put her floor at such an angle that she couldn’t keep anything still without nailing boards down for her furniture to catch on, so instead she’s mostly just annoyed. The FEMA man had told her about the boards and showed her how to set them up by doing it for her coffee table. He left her a few nails, a hammer because she didn’t have one, and some wood. Like the rest of her things, they had slid against the wall in a heap. That was all they could do for now, the FEMA man said. There was greater need all throughout the city. After things like this, hurt becomes quantifiable. Not all hurts are equal, or deserving of attention. She and the graveyard remain distressed. Although, to be honest, things aren’t that different from before. She was never great at housekeeping. Only now her clutter is all in one place, and there are three near-complete skeletons on her couch. Her front window is also broken, but she’d done that before the earthquake. When she comes in, she lays the blanket across the skeletons’ legs. Only the middle one has both, and it’s in want of a foot and an arm. Every time she comes home they tell her what they’re in need off. “Did you bring me a clavicle?” says the one. “A tibia?” says the second. “If I had fingers, I could play the most beautiful melodies for you. Just get me a piano, and some phalanges.” says the one again. She has heard such promises before. The third one, her newest, doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t have the mandibles. He just stares at her with his sockets like the pit. But she knows this isn’t his fault. She loots her phone out of the clutter against the wall and checks it, but there’s nothing from anyone she knows. Just strangers on apps trying to reach out to other strangers. Mostly for nudes, she thinks. She sets it back down, and it slides into the clutter. She lets it go. Don’t let technology rule you. That’s what one of her tapes said. Next she searches out her player, the one she bought from a thrift store before the quake, a book on anatomy she found in the ruins of the library, and her box of tapes. The last is the easiest to find. She always tucks it under the cushions of her couch. Sometimes it shifts around if the skeletons have squirmed while she is gone. But they never do that much. Back before the quake, and back before the broken window, when the boy used to lay with her on the couch, the tapes used to move a lot more. Sometimes the box would even open and all the tapes would spill out and she’d have to fish them out of the bottom of the couch one by one. Always count things that could be worse, or once were worse, or even just different. Count what you can. Keep track of the quantities of your life. Run a tally. That came from a tape, and the tapes had come from the old man upstairs, who liked to record himself reading self-help books. He left them outside his neighbor’s doors. She kept them. She’d seen him looting through the dumpster and retrieving the ones chucked away. She felt sorry for him. And she also thought she could use some guidance. Now, they’re the last two left in the building. Everyone else had somewhere else to go. She has twenty-two tapes in total. She’s never spoken to the man, but she knows his voice better than she knows her own father’s, possibly even better than she knows her own. It’s a road-rash voice. One that gets stuck in the ear and stays there. Every now and then it floats through her mind when she’s out doing other things. She prefers this to when the boy’s voice creeps in. His is only ever critical. It was the old man’s voice that had given her the idea about the bones. She had been walking past the graveyard on her way to where FEMA had set up its headquarters. The man with the boards had told her to register her name as a survivor down there, and that’s what she was going to do. She wasn’t, she told herself, going to check for the boy’s name. She was just going to announce to the world that she was still here. Though no one yet had called asking. She’d gotten one message from a woman she didn’t know yet, asking if she was alive. They were supposed to have coffee later that month. She didn’t reply. Care makes us human, the old man’s voice told her. Care is the cornerstone of civilization. Without it, we degrade into wildness. Without it, we dissolve into nothing. Care is what makes us real. All around, the houses were split in twos or threes or crumbled into nothing, fissures of broken concrete and grass stretching to their porches and reaching down into their foundations to shake them apart. Like tentacles from some Sci-Fi flick. The whole city had gone Lovecraft. Not even suburbia had survived. Fences and pink flamingos were tossed aside or swallowed. Across the road, the brick and wrought iron fence that had caged in the graveyard had crumbled and twisted like used tissue. A skull had bounced all the way out of bounds and onto the sidewalk. And did she care? Was she cared for? We must find people who care. We must make people care. To make us real. Or else, we’re nothing. She knew make wasn’t meant literally, but she also didn’t see why it couldn’t be. It seemed simpler than the alternative. Easier, in the long run. And so instead of going down to register as a survivor, she climbed the rubble of the fence into the graveyard. That advice had come from a tape titled Becoming a Real Person, the most recent tape the old man had given to her. It’s the one in her tape deck now, and so far she thinks it’s the best out of all of them. Before this, her favorite had been How to Keep Your Face Still When You Need to. She’d listened to that one often back before the quake, when she had a job to go to and there were people in the streets. But now it isn’t so important. She lets her face do what it wants. She hits play and it starts mid-sentence: “without others’ hands and eyes. How can you know you are flesh if there is no one there to touch you? To verify that this skin is here. This body is here. How can you be sure you can be seen, if there are no eyes to see you?” She opens up the blanket and starts detangling the bones. The skeletons lean their heads forward to see what she’s brought home. “Have you ever wondered if these are real books?” asks the second skeleton. She doesn’t say anything back. She picks up a skull and runs her hands over it to brush the dirt off. Then she opens the anatomy book to the page about heads, necks, and shoulders. “No,” groans the first. “You promised you wouldn’t start another.” The jawless skeleton’s head rattles side to side to side until she reaches up and touches his empty knee socket. “I’ll see what I have for all of you,” she says. “But look at this poor guy. His need is so great. He’s got nothing.” She holds the skull up so they can see into its eyes, and they quiet down. Really, she knows once she gives them everything they need, only one of two things can happen. Either they’ll leave. Or they’ll want something more. Maybe their real teeth. Their real bones. Their real selves. Their real families. Things she can’t give them. Which will just boil down to them leaving as well, but after giving her much more of a headache. She doesn’t need the tapes to tell her that. “You will never be a real person until someone tells you you are a real person. Until then, you are nothing more than dust motes. You are nothing more than an accidental cluster of atoms. A photograph only partially developed.” She pulls a bone out of the pile and looks from it to the book. She never studied anatomy. Her two years in college had been wasted on pursuing a degree in fine arts with a focus on pottery. Back then she studied bodies in a casual, romantic way, but she never really known any of them for long. The only body she had ever really known was her own, and can one really accurately know one’s body? And then she knew the boy’s body, for a while. She knew the curve of his ribs, the bend of his elbow, the click of his jaw. She became a specialist in his anatomy. She knew when his spine curved a certain way and his fingers spread, she was becoming his world. She knew when his teeth clenched and shoulders hunched, bad weather was rolling in. She could still conjure pictures of his body behind her eyes. She sets the skull between the knees of one of the skeletons. “Hold him still,” she says. She gathers what looks to be scattered bits of spine. They aren’t exactly the same size, but they will do. She uncaps her glue and turns to the skull. The tape finishes, and she flips it and starts it again. The first skeleton groans, but the others stay quiet. She takes a break every now and then to check her phone. Sometimes she pulls up the news. There’re warnings about aftershocks. The list of survivors has been published without her. She doesn’t look. There’s footage of buildings downtown collapsing in on themselves as the camera filming it shakes. There’s footage of people crying. People sitting on the ground, dazed and dirt spackled, under long pavilion styled tents. There is a moment where she catches sight of a survivor and nearly recognizes him as him. It’s hard to know for sure, because it’s only someone in the background. It’s only someone who is covered in dust and moving with purpose towards someone else, their face only partially caught by the camera. It is only just a glimpse, and whenever she catches glimpses of someone who looks enough like him, she is always recognizing them as him. It means nothing. She rewinds it anyway to watch one more time. And then again. “He’s dry now,” the one calls from the couch. She sets her phone down and it slides back into the clutter. The newest skeleton is just a spine, shoulder blades, and an arm. She’ll bring him ribs if she can find them tomorrow. Tomorrow, he’ll be awake. For now, she props him up against the end of the couch so his arm dangles over the armrest. She works on the others, filling in their gaps. She gives the third the rest of an arm, a piece of pelvis, finishes one of his legs down to his foot. The first gets all the fingers. The second gets a foot and some toes. She works until after midnight and all that’s left in the blanket are bits of bone shard so fine they look like sugar. She stands up and wraps the blanket around herself like a cape and then drops down between the third skeleton and the newest one. The third skeleton turns his face towards her, his skull bouncing on the base of his spine. She reaches up to touch his cheekbone. “Tomorrow I’ll find you a jaw,” she promises. She wakes to a thump on her door sometime past ten. She untangles herself from the blanket and the bones. The morning is always the worst. Dew slips in the broken window and soaks the clutter against the wall and the top of the couch. It even gets in her hair and wets the top of the skeletons’ skulls. Their teeth rattle in their sleep from the cold. But there isn’t enough space in her bed for all of them. It’s also the hardest to fight against the tilt of her floor in the mornings. She keeps forgetting the shape of the world in her sleep, and the first steps of the day are always surprising. At the door, lying on her mat, is a tape. The front door of her building is hanging open and outside she hears a car door slam. Voices bickering. She steps out into the hall and looks out. At the curb there’s a station wagon idling, and a man and woman talking over the roof. In the backseat the old man from upstairs sits. In the hatch are a few suitcases and filled trash bags. The woman lowers herself into the car, and the man looks back once at the apartment building. He sees her standing there, and gives her a strained smile before dropping into the car as well. The old man doesn’t look at all before the car pulls off. She walks out the door and stands at the curb. She can still smell the smog from their exhaust pipe. She looks down the road and watches as the car rocks over a makeshift bridge of boards stretched over a fissure in the ground. She wants to stand there and watch them until they’re out of sight, but with the road the way it is, it’s slow going. The fact that they made it at all is surprising. It`s evidence of great care. She feels grief and misconstrues it as anger. She turns around and walks back into her apartment, leaving the tape on the mat. “Are you going to the graveyard?” the one asks, but she walks past them and closes herself up in the bathroom. She sits on the toilet and hangs her head between her knees and counts her toes. Without another person to witness your life, does your life mean anything at all? It’s too much for me to handle on my own, the boy says. I can’t be the one to take care of you. She closes her eyes and can see the haze of station wagon exhaust. The old man’s face smeared behind tinted glass. The woman and the man sitting together upfront, having a small argument. She feels jealousy and misconstrues it as betrayal. She lets herself sit with that misunderstanding until she dozes off. There is a scratching at the bathroom door. She wakes to it. She thinks about letting it be, but as if the sound can read her mind, it grows more frantic. She thinks of gouges in the wood. She wonders if her landlord is dead. When she opens the door, it’s her favorite, the third, laying outside. His arm is outstretched and the hand is still flapping up and down on his wrist. He stares up at her. She gathers him up in her arms and carries him back to the couch. “You can’t let us keep living like this,” says the second. “Being incomplete is torture.” The fourth is still asleep. She can see pearls of glue that have oozed out between the seams of his spine. When he wakes, will he wake disoriented? That’s how it was with the others. All of them came to screaming. Except for the third. She had seen to that when she cracked his jaw off in the cemetery. She feels empathy but misconstrues it as pity. “Okay,” she says. “Fine.” She takes three shopping carts from the ruined dollar store down the road. She’ll need some kind of rope to be as efficient as possible, and she’ll need more glue from inside. The store caved in completely. Its roof lays on top of its remains like a stone tablet cracked in two. She has to pull out stone after stone before she can squeeze under it and crawl through the remains of the store’s guts. When she’s inside, there’s only just enough light to make out the vague shape of things in the dark. Bits of plastic toys dig into the palms of her hands. She feels her way through puddles of water and soda. Feels wet stuffing between her fingers. She remembers a story she was told as a child. About a stuffed rabbit that wanted to be made real. Care is key. The old man should not have acted like he was lonely if he was not alone. She presses forward, feeling her way through the half-light. She hits a wall of rubble. Follows it to the right, and her hand lands in something wet again. When she reaches forward she feels soft flesh and the edge of cloth. She stares down at where she knows her hand to be until the darkness takes the shape of an arm sprouting out of a polo shirt. A torso with a name tag she can’t read. She wonders for the first time what she’ll do when the world rights itself. When the people who can go back to living finally do go back to living. The world will shake off the dust and march on, and those who can’t march along will go back in the dirt. They’ll dissolve into phantoms. She holds the hand of the corpse. She feels fear and misconstrues it as grief. The building shakes. Beneath her the earth bucks. She lets go of the corpse’s hand and curls into a ball. The aftershock passes. “Sorry,” she says, and crawls over the body. She keeps crawling, and keeps searching until her hands brush against yarn, soft and unspooled and just strong enough to handle what she needs of it. She pulls the train of carts she tied together into the graveyard. She is covered head to toe in dollar store dust. It’s in her eyes, causing the light to sparkle and pop like there are fairies floating all around her. It’s in her mouth, making everything taste like plaster and mold. It is on her skin, dying her white as a plastic bag. She feels closer to the bones than ever before. She begins to load the carts, picking bones indiscriminately. Her choices have always been uneducated, but she had looked, at least, before. Tried to imagine which parts might fit where. Now she just brings arm loads to the shopping carts and dumps them in, one after the other. When her arms are empty she runs through the graveyard till they’re full again. Already, the sun is setting. She’d been under the rubble for longer than she thought. She comes to the mouth of the pit when all but the last cart are completely full, and she looks down into it. The black of it is seeping up. Reaching out towards her. There is a nothing inside of all of us. We are nothing, all of us. We need others to act as mirrors. So that we can be vigilante against the parts of ourselves that would eat the rest of us whole, says the old man. The way you act is irrational, says the boy. I never know who I’m talking to. I think I’ve never really known you at all. She kicks her foot into the dirt and a clump of it comes loose and falls into the pit, cartwheeling as it goes. It slips from view. She imagines running behind the carts until they pick up enough speed, then jumping on the back. She imagines them all plummeting over the edge and falling together. “If you have something to say then say it,” she says. But the pit just throbs, and the sun goes down. She props the door to her building open and pushes the carts up the slanted floor towards her door. When she gets there the tape is gone and the door is ajar. Inside she can hear the old man’s voice. She releases the carts and they roll back to hit her in the stomach. She buckles for a moment before moving out of the way. The carts roll past her and smash into the wall, scattering bones all over the floor. She ignores this in favor of the door. Someone, she thinks, has come back. Maybe the old man. Or maybe someone`s come to see if she’s alive. Maybe someone she used to work with. Or maybe even her family. Or maybe even the boy. As she opens the door, she can see him, shoulders hunched over the player in the dark of her apartment. The old man’s voice, the new tape, is playing. “When I was a boy I used to think about colors. How we saw them. How we could never be sure that what we were seeing was like anyone else was seeing. We look at something and call it blue, but how can I know that my blue is your blue?” She steps closer and rubs dollar store out of her eye. “Honey?” she asks, and he turns his head. But there are no eyes. No nose. No body. “Are you the one who brought me here?” asks the fourth skeleton. “How can we know that our reality matches anyone else’s? Language is a trap. It falls short of any true meaning. It is a fool’s comfort. And feelings? We learn the names of our feelings because people tell us what we are feeling when we are feeling it based on what they can see. But how can they truly know what we’re feeling? So then, how can we?” The three are asleep on the couch. Except maybe the third. She can never tell with the third. Is he watching her? Did he let the fourth touch her things? Did he let him open the door? Did he let him fool her into thinking that there was someone coming for her? The fourth pushes and pulls himself away from the player towards her. He reaches for her ankle, and she backs away. “You have to finish me up,” he says. “I can’t stand being this way.” She feels pity but misconstrues it as revulsion. She kicks his hand away and he rolls down the floor and clatters against the wall. “I wanted to share with you what I felt and what I saw, but there’s no true way.” She seizes the skeleton out of the clutter and hoists him up against the wall. She pounds him against it, over and over. He screams. She screams Bits of bone splinter. Spine falls to the floor. “I’m a failure when it comes to being a person. Maybe we all are. I’m sorry.” Something hard comes down across the top of her skull and her vision becomes all bright bursts of color. She drops the skeleton and they fall together to the floor. She catches sight of the third skeleton, her favorite. His eye sockets are so very close to hers. Then all she can see is nothing. She wakes to the sound of rattling bones and music. She can’t stand up. Her body is bound with unwound tapes. From the floor, all she can see is ankle bones, spinning and stomping and sliding down the angled floor in pairs to stomp back up it together. She rolls onto her back and tries to prop her head up to get a better view, but before she can, hands grip her ankles and drag her across the floor. Then hands are all over her. She wants to scream but there is tape ribbon lodged in her mouth and around her tongue. The hands hoist her up and hold her steady. In her apartment, there are wall-to-wall skeletons, dancing. In the corner the one stands, playing the piano, while another bangs on her pots and pans. She tries to count how many and loses track. There are more in the hall. They begin to pour in, and the music grows louder. They form a circle. They spin her around and around and pass her to the next in line. The tape gets caught under her feet sometimes, and she nearly falls, but the next set of hands catches her, lifts her back up, and sets her spinning again. When she comes full circle, they shove her backwards into the middle. She is sure she is falling when she feels hands hook under her shoulders and drag her back up. She’s turned around once more. Her favorite is holding her, very nearly complete, but still jawless. He takes the tape ribbon from out of her mouth and unwinds her slowly. A skeleton steps forward with a jaw and a bottle of glue. Her favorite takes them once she is untied. He holds them out to her. Once something is finished, it’s finished, the boy says. All around her are empty eyes. The music has stopped. Her favorite presses the jaw into her hand. She can feel the teeth press into her palm. Behind her there is a wall of ribs. She closes her eyes and closes her fingers around the bone. She reaches up to his face and his hands guide her hands to the empty seam. There is a great cheer, and the music starts up again. When she opens her eyes, they’re all filing out of her apartment, new limbs flailing. The third stands before her, wiggling his jaw. He lays a hand on her shoulder and says something, but she can’t hear him over the music. Two skeletons pick up the piano and carry it so the first can keep playing as he walks. The apartment empties. She can hear them in the street through the shattered glass of her window. Before the last few are gone the third hoists her up and carries her out the door after them. They whirl together down the street. Sometimes they do the foxtrot. Sometimes it’s the tango. Sometimes he sends her spinning and she freewheels through the skeletons, crashing into them and nearly falling. She’s never sure if it’s him that takes her hand again, but it no longer seems important. She catches sight of another parade making their way out of downtown. Trucks branded with FEMA drive slowly up the wreckage of the main road. People trail behind, backpacks slung over their shoulders, or jumbled possessions clutched in their arms. For a moment, she thinks they’re going to merge, but the skeletons veer away. They’re heading into the cemetery. She pulls away from the skeletons and watches the survivor procession as it draws closer. The trucks stop in the road when they see the skeletons. The survivors on foot draw alongside them. Hands spider around her hips and she feels a collarbone press into the back of her neck. Someone lifts her, and she allows herself to be lifted. She’s hoisted upwards, spread out on her back over the hands of a cluster of skeletons, as if she were crowd surfing through them. Up ahead, the leaders have made it to the edge of the pit. She watches the white caps of their head drop down and disappear only to be followed by the next. It looks like a river churning over the brink of a waterfall. The piano goes, and the player after it. The sounds of pots and pans banging is replaced by the quiet murmur of grass under feet and the hum of idling trucks. She tilts her head back towards the survivors. Everyone looks the same, upside down and far away. Or maybe, everyone looks the same when your heart is hurt and hopeful. They all look like him. The earth shakes again and she feels the bones of the many hands holding her shake as well. She looks back and sees the pit widening, clumps of dirt loosening and tumbling under the feet of the skeletons, who follow the earth down into the dark. Still, the ones carrying her surge forward to the opening mouth of it, and she rides along. All I ever wanted was to be known by someone. To feel one with others, the old man says. The hands around her ankles let go as the skeletons holding them drop downward. She sits up to look one last time at the survivors. Is one stepping forward? she thinks, but before she can tell, the skeletons beneath her knees and thighs are gone, and it’s too late. She turns to the pit and stares down its dark eye. Then she reaches out her arms and leans forward. She hears her name being called. The post PseudoPod 734: Anatomist appeared first on PseudoPod.
36 minutes | 2 months ago
PseudoPod 733: Late Sleepers
Author : Steve Rasnic Tem Narrator : David Powell Host : Alasdair Stuart Audio Producer : Chelsea Davis Discuss on Forums “Late Sleepers” was first published in It Came from the Multiplex, published by Hex Publishers in September 2020 Reviews of It Came from the Multiplex edited by Josh Viola and Echoes of a Natural World: Tales of the Strange & Estranged edited by Michael P. Daley were written and read by Shawn Garrett, co-Editor. Late Sleepers by Steve Rasnic Tem Ted woke up in the dark with a dull headache, deciding to sneak out before the rest of the family got up. Going home for Thanksgiving was a terrible idea. He’d have to find some excuse to stay on campus for Christmas. Maybe he’d come home New Year’s Day, if he wasn’t too hungover. He’d slept in the same clothes he wore at dinner. He didn’t know why he hadn’t changed; he didn’t remember going to bed. His dad worked all day on their ancient furnace, banging a hammer and making dinner late. Mom was furious, and that started the first argument. Then his brother got into it, followed by his brother’s wife. There’d been something about Ted’s major, the wasted college fees, his low grades, and other upsets he couldn’t remember at all. Politics maybe. Or a neighbor’s careless and tragic end. So much he couldn’t quite point to. For once his dad hadn’t participated. He just sat there staring at them. Ted remembered leaving the table mad at everybody, but nothing after. The meal might have gone better if Emily had come. They might have tried harder with a stranger present, but Emily was amazed Ted had even invited her. “We don’t have that kind of relationship.” His confusion and embarrassment over her answer made him feel stupid. He’d promised them his girlfriend was coming for Thanksgiving. His brother always gave him shit about his “unrequited loves.” Just once Ted wanted to be the one who got the girl. In the movies, the loser sometimes got what he wanted. That was supposed to encourage guys like him. He carried his coat and bag out to the staircase landing. The inside of the house appeared unfocused, layered in shades of gray. He couldn’t have said what about that bothered him. He strained to see more detail, making his headache worse. He crept down the staircase gripping the railing and watching each step. He walked into the dark dining room. The table should have been empty, but he could see a spread of silhouettes. He flipped on the light. Dirty plates were still around the table, greasy glasses and silverware, a fork under his sister-in-law’s chair, debris from the great bird and bits of lettuce and bread scattered across Mom’s best tablecloth, a bowl almost empty of mashed potatoes, an unserved pumpkin pie. His father’s plate was still full, surprisingly untouched. His mother hadn’t cleared or cleaned anything, yet she was such a neat freak. Had she been that angry? Or maybe she’d gotten sick. He’d call in a few days and apologize, make sure she was okay. He paused at the front door. The stillness troubled him. He didn’t hear anything, but it seemed the noise of nothing was pounding in his head. He breathed in deeply, smelling only the stale air. Maybe all would be forgotten by his next visit. No one was up in their small town. The downtown Christmas lights were hung, a glitter of brilliant white with the occasional splash of red. Everything else lay dark. A half hour outside town, Ted saw the Paradise Cinemas sign, the only building visible for miles. The vertical theater name and the rectangular marquee below were outlined with a triple row of blinking blue and red bulbs. He’d gone there all the time when he was a kid. It was the first twin cinema in this part of the state. Showtimes were staggered so you could see a movie in one theater and then move to the next. By his high school years, most people had taken their business to the eight screens at the new multiplex. The Paradise used to run movies all Thanksgiving night for those with no better way to spend the holiday. He slammed on his brakes to make the turn onto the access road, the rear end of his Celica fishtailing on the icy pavement. He felt suddenly ill. He stopped the car, opened the door, and threw up onto the road. There were six or seven cars in the gravel parking lot. The marquee said “Late Sleepers & S*l*cted Horror Clips.” A hand-lettered cardboard sign on the art deco door stated “Final Day / Thank you for 50 great years!” The theater’s front door made a soft scraping noise as he stepped into the ice-cold lobby. The interior had the same décor Ted remembered from childhood. The carpet bore a complex pattern of Asian temples and jungle animals in several colors. Badly worn when he was a kid, it was far worse now. Dark floorboards peeked through in spots. The wallpaper was pinkish-red and flocked with a felt pattern a few shades darker. The main figures resembled giant upside-down roaches. The chandelier overhead was missing numerous prisms and other glass trim. A huge man in a pale-yellow suit and a fur cap stood up from a chair wedged behind the heavily-scratched glass counter. His forced smile looked painful. His “Manager” tag was pinned to a ratty-looking red sweater beneath his suit jacket. “Hello sir, welcome to Paradise,” he uttered in a monotone. His lips were wet and his eyes red and tiny. “Hi, the movies still playing?” “Right until dawn.” “How much?” The manager pouted. “Usually five bucks, but this is the last night. Let’s call it free. Besides, the main feature, Late Sleepers, is a weird independent film out of Atlanta. But it’s all we got.” “I can’t argue with free. What are the clips on the marquee all about?” “Just a bunch of scenes the owner put together from stuff that’s played here. I don’t know where he got it all. Some of it he’s had for years. Sometimes a reel falls apart on you, you know? Sometimes part of that reel doesn’t get put back.” It sounded dubious, but what did he care? “Can I sell you some refreshments?” “A medium Coke, I guess.” “Popcorn? Candy?” Ted looked at the popcorn maker, half full of yellowish, stiff-looking popped kernels. The butter appeared discolored. The candy bars sat neatly arranged in the glass case but they all had faded wrappers. As he surveyed the offerings, he was pretty sure most hadn’t been made in years—Marathon, Reggie, Starbar, PowerHouse, and Texan. The manager had the drink ready on the counter, two thick fingers tapping the lid. “The Coke will be enough. It’s kind of late,” Ted said. “Three bucks then. Find yourself a seat in theater two. Movie’s on a loop. You’re about forty-five minutes from the end before it all starts up again. Stay as long as you like, until dawn at least. That’s when I kick everybody out and the Paradise is done. Next month they’re turning us into a parking lot.” He made a hoarse, gurgling laugh. Ted had no idea what he was talking about. “What’s playing in theater one?” “We shut that one down years ago. Projector went bad. Couldn’t afford to replace it. I like them old projectors. They make a little rattling noise that tells you you’re in a theater and not watching TV.” Ted nodded and walked to the gold curtain with the black numeral “2” above it. A small paper sign by the opening said No Sleeping Allowed. “Are you serious about ‘no sleeping’?” “I am. People snore—it disturbs the other customers. Almost worse than talking.” “But people fall asleep during movies all the time.” “Not in my movie theater. They get one warning. After that, they’re gone.” “I see…” Ted paused. The manager’s face became angry. “I’ve never heard of this before.” “It’s like church. You’re not supposed to sleep in church. You let the screen do your dreaming—that’s what it’s there for. Did you know in the 30s they called movie theaters dream palaces? They understood back then. We’ve just forgotten.” “Well, thank you. I didn’t know.” Ted pushed apart the curtain and stood inside until his eyes adjusted. He hoped he wouldn’t fall asleep. It was pretty late. More of the old carpet ran down the aisle. The rows of seats looked uneven as some seat backs had collapsed and some were missing corners. He could see very little of the walls in the dark, but he remembered huge water stains descending in some sections, and even bigger ones flowering across the ceiling. He doubted they had been fixed. The screen was watchable, despite several vertical splits and puckers near the edges that distorted the image. It was framed by two halves of a giant red velvet curtain. He wondered if they still closed the curtain between shows. Even in its shabby state it suggested the possibility of something grand. His tennis shoes stuck to the carpet with each step, making a soft kissing noise when he lifted his feet. All those decades of dripping butter and pop, he thought. He looked for the seats that appeared less worn, less sunken. Pickings were slim. He tried several before finding one somewhat bearable. He had to squeeze past a few patrons as collapsed-looking as the upholstery. His apologies were met with silence. He assumed the scene playing on the screen was from Late Sleepers, but he couldn’t figure out what was going on. He was looking at a vaguely familiar living room in a modest home somewhat like his parents’, so dark it might have been black and white but for a few visible glimmers of blue and green. The soundtrack had a discordant metallic hum, the rhythm of which shifted unexpectedly, increasing in volume gradually until he found himself wiggling around in discomfort. The scene went on with no actors, and no other sound except for that loud mechanical noise. Ted began to wonder if there might be something wrong with the projector. He twisted around and checked out the rest of the audience, looking for impatience or confusion or alarm, anything indicating they might be seeing it the same way he was. There were eight or nine forms slumped into their seats, heads tilted back, motionless. Ted couldn’t see any of their eyes, but from their attitude and their stillness, it seemed some of them must have been asleep. Maybe all of them. They were breaking the special rule of the Paradise, so why hadn’t they been removed? They were completely silent—no snoring that he could hear. He couldn’t even hear them breathe. Perhaps making noise was the major concern. He returned his attention to the screen just as the machine noise faded and the scene ended. The words “End of Part 4” appeared. There was some scratchy black leader and then the first clip began, or at least the first clip Ted had seen. A hand-written title appeared in black ink over white stock. Possession. He’d seen it, if it was the one he was thinking of. Isabelle Adjani appeared walking through a heavily shadowed subway passage and he knew immediately it was that movie. Suddenly she was convulsing, throwing herself around as if an outside force controlled her body. Ted clutched the armrests, knowing what was coming. Isabelle fell to the dirty pavement in agony, hemorrhaging copiously as she had a miscarriage. They’d picked the most terrible scene from the film. The “clips” appeared to be a compilation of scenes from 70s and 80s horror flicks, many Ted recognized and many more he did not. They ran without interruption, separated only by dark or bloody or plain nasty-looking leaders, each introduced with a hastily-scrawled identifying title, one after the other like a feverish, disjointed nightmare. Next came Jason’s rotting body pulling the girl under the lake in Friday the 13th. Then there was Chucky coming alive in the mother’s hands in Child’s Play, followed by an illegibly-labeled clip in which a baby ate its own fingers in a jittering black and white soundless sequence so badly scratched Ted wondered if maybe he just imagined it. The music behind many of the scenes was loud to the point of distortion, the colors so bright and garish they appeared to burn through the screen. His head ached again. Then came that awful ending to Sleepaway Camp in all its politically incorrect glory, the shattered looking face he had never been able to get out of his head. Ted felt ill again so he climbed out of his seat and ran for the bathroom off the lobby. The manager wasn’t behind the counter. The men’s room was under the staircase leading to the closed balcony. As far back as Ted could remember, the balcony had always been closed. He squeezed through the narrow doorway and down a crooked hall. At some point the three toilets and sinks had been painted bright red, but the paint was mostly chipped off, leaving a haphazard blood-spatter effect. He went to his knees before the first bowl and vomited, almost passing out. He put his head against the cold floor, vaguely aware of how filthy it was. He got his head above the bowl before vomiting again. He had no idea how long he was in there, and he felt no urgency to return to his seat. He rubbed water onto his face and into his hair and staggered out. Still no sign of the manager. As he walked past theater one, he thought he heard a noise from inside. Like the sound of a projector motor. He pulled the curtain back and peered inside. The projector clattered above his head. A bright white nothingness flickered on the screen. The dark outlines of all the seats appeared swollen and misshapen, as if occupied by a sold-out audience. Suddenly a heavy hand on his shoulder pulled him back into the lobby. “I told you that theater ain’t open to the public!” The manager’s face was livid and dangerously close. That hadn’t exactly been what he’d told him but Ted wasn’t about to argue. “I’m sorry. It won’t happen again.” Startled, he squirmed away from the manager and ducked back into theater two. He felt sick with embarrassment, like some stupid kid. Late Sleepers was apparently in the midst of another chapter. Still no actors in evidence, but the camera was taking the audience up a staircase and down a hall, presumably to the bedrooms. The hall was so dark Ted could make out very few details. It all looked terribly familiar, but then many houses built during that time had similar layouts. Then “End of Part 7” flashed on the screen. He had no idea he’d been gone that long. There seemed little point in staying—he hadn’t seen any characters yet and had no idea of the plot—but another round of clips began and he was reluctant to leave. Several odd characters scrolled across the screen, followed by some quick cuts of an old lady being ripped apart by giant demonic crickets in some nameless, sickeningly-lit Asian film. This was followed by the exploding head scene in Scanners. Apparently, the owner, who Ted strongly suspected was also the manager, liked this so much he repeated it twice. After a pause and random streams of color, he was treated to the incredibly visceral transformation scene Rick Baker delivered in An American Werewolf in London, one of Ted’s favorites. A couple of friends once claimed it was a comedy but he couldn’t remember ever laughing. The next clip began but almost immediately bubbled and burned. The house lights came up abruptly and Ted could hear cursing—or was it screaming?—coming from the projection booth behind him. He saw an irregular patch of shadow flowing down the center aisle and realized it was a mass of roaches fleeing the light. They disappeared into a rip in the carpet. He turned around wondering if anyone else caught a glimpse. Some people must have left because now he could only count four besides himself. Three of them had their eyes closed, heads tilted sideways. The remaining pallid elderly man stared at him, unblinking. He slowly caressed the curved handle of a thick wooden cane he had clutched to his chest. Ted turned away. It was his first chance to get a good look at the theater’s walls and ceiling. The stains were still there, but multiplied. In some places, the wallpaper had disintegrated completely to show separating sections of plaster, their edges gleaming with moisture. The lights went out again and the clips continued to roll. The tree outside the boy’s window in Poltergeist warped into footage of the overactive hand in Evil Dead 2. The clip ended abruptly and went directly into Jeff Goldblum’s final transformation in The Fly. The deep suggestion of filth in that movie made Ted feel profoundly uncomfortable. He shouldn’t have left his parents’ house so abruptly. He should have stayed and made amends, helped them clean up the dreadful mess the next morning. The nasty kitchen in Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre appeared on the screen. It was an unstable clip, which only fueled the electric anxiety of the characters. Layers of flesh and bone debris, greasy plates and silverware, dried regions of blood. Ted began to sweat, and a burning sensation moved across his chest. He wanted to scratch himself, but the itch spread everywhere, and once he started scratching, he couldn’t imagine stopping. Things moved in the far corners of the scene, a suggestion of insects wandering across the table and touching the scattered bits of food, something crawling in and out of a small carcass, a suggestion of a rodent. “End of Part 3” flashed on the screen, followed by some scratchy leader, then more footage from Late Sleepers. The pieces must have been out of order, not that it mattered as far as he could tell. Still no actors. The camera moved slowly into the dark dining room when a small spotlight, like a flashlight—presumably attached to the camera—went on and off to illuminate individual plates, serving platters, wine glasses tipped over and staining the lovely tablecloth with splotches of deep red. Grease gleamed off the fine holiday china and close-ups zeroed in on forks, knives, and spoons smeared with animal and vegetable remains. Ted grew increasingly anxious as each new detail was revealed. With the camera so close to the table this could have been anyone’s dining room, and holiday meals had a certain uniformity across the country, but some angles and perspectives appearing at such size across the theater screen shook him with unsettling recognition. The burning and itching returned and were more intense, like armies of filthy insects marching around his torso. Soon it was almost unbearable. He jumped out of his seat again and raced for the bathroom. Once under the mirror’s bare bulbs, Ted shed his coat and peeled off his shirt and stared at himself. Large cherry-red blotches covered his pecs and belly. Even brighter red islands had risen on his forearms, like the flocked patterns of the lobby wallpaper. These continued onto his hands, blistering one of his knuckles. He probed the tender spots, searching every inch of skin to map the spread of his symptoms. Maybe he was allergic to something on the seats, and the blotches would be gone by the time he got to campus. But this place was so filthy, it could be anything. God, he should never have drunk that Coke! It was probably contaminated. He might have to go to the infirmary once he was back on campus. Not that they could help him. He wondered if they were even real doctors. He locked eyes with his mirror image. It was like watching a movie of himself. This damn Thanksgiving. His damn family. He’d heard that sometimes people got rashes just from being upset. Well, he was plenty upset. Every time he came home he was upset. He should have left right then, but he wanted to see how it all ended. He put his clothes back on and went into the lobby. The manager had the elderly man Ted saw earlier in theater two trapped in his arms, dragging him away. The old man’s cane fell to the floor. The manager glanced at Ted and growled just as the man went slack. “Go back to your seat!” the manager barked as he hauled the poor man into theater one. Ted could hear that projector clacking and whirring so loudly, it must have been flying apart. He wanted to help the fellow, and started after them, then stopped. This wasn’t a movie, and he was no match for a behemoth like the manager. He went to the front door and struggled to open it. It was locked. He looked around frantically, expecting the manager to burst through the curtains. A payphone hung from the wall by the restroom door, but the handset had been removed, colored wires splaying from the armored cable. He picked up the cane, and ran back into theater two looking for help. Ted scanned the seats. The theater was completely empty. A snippet from John Carpenter’s The Thing was playing—that hideous upside-down head growing segmented legs and trucking rapidly across the floor. He ran to the front of the theater and used the cane to pull back the curtains on both sides of the screen. The two emergency exits were boarded up. He walked back up the aisle trying to figure out what to do. He avoided touching the seats. He turned and gazed at the screen. “Heeeeere’s Johnny!” as Jack Nicholson’s head protruded from a jagged hole in The Shining. Late Sleepers started playing again. The camera glided along the upstairs hall of that too-familiar home. Ted needed to leave, but there appeared to be nowhere to go. He gripped the cane tightly, getting ready to use it as a club. Up on the screen of his dream palace an unseen hand opened each door along the hallway and the camera, and Ted, floated inside. In the first bedroom his parents lay on the floor, dead eyes staring at the ceiling, their cheeks bright red. In another room the bodies of his brother and sister-in-law lay contorted in bed, tangled in the covers. The rising sun peeked through the window. The film ended, fading to black before it got to Ted’s room. He ran out to the lobby, cane raised. The manager was nowhere to be seen. Ted waited, looking around, listening carefully, hearing no sound. Then he noticed that the front door was cracked an inch or so, just enough to let in the dawn. He slammed it open with his shoulder, turning and swinging at nothing until convinced he was alone. Ted drove back to his parents’ house, understanding he would not be returning to school, a surrender more than a decision. The filth and chaos of the dining room looked worse in the light of morning. He thought back to the beginning of that terrible day, and how it all seemed to begin with his father’s frustrations with the furnace. He breathed in deeply, seeking some kind of smell, but there wasn’t one. He quietly climbed the stairs even though he knew he risked disturbing no one. He thought about peeking into the other bedrooms but didn’t have the heart. He took off his shoes and climbed into bed with his clothes on. He might have taken the time to slip into pajamas, but he knew it wouldn’t be that kind of sleep. The post PseudoPod 733: Late Sleepers appeared first on PseudoPod.
43 minutes | 2 months ago
PseudoPod 732: Devil Gonna Catch You in the Corners
Author : Christopher Slatsky Narrator : Christiana Ellis Host : Alasdair Stuart Audio Producer : Chelsea Davis Discuss on Forums “Devil Gonna Catch You in the Corners” first appeared in Strange Aeons Magazine #20 (2016) Reviews at the end by co-Editor Alex Hofelich, read by Associate Editor Scott Campbell. The Immeasurable Corpse of Nature is a collection by Christopher Slatsky. Wonder and Glory Forever is an anthology edited by Nick Mamatas. Devil Gonna Catch You in the Corners by Christopher Slatsky THURSDAY, 8th March, 1849.— It has been a trying journey over narrow deer-paths and rutted trails. Heavy branches of ancient oaks cast the way in shadow, yet I continue to write my thoughts in my diary—what Father mockingly refers to as “belles-lettres”. When I was a child, I kept a daily record during the two-month emigration from New-England to the Willamette Valley where Father had been hired by the Hudson’s Bay Company; as an adult, a mere two-days’ travel will not dissuade me from continuing to write. These valleys, these streams that break the monotony of impenetrable alder and oak forests make the wagon’s passage that much more difficult. I have left home as my parents offered my services to Uncle Jon Sutton, who has taken ill and is convalescing in his isolated country estate. Being his only niece, it was decided to send me to assist with any daily tasks necessary to maintain his orderly domicile, while a nurse Marjorie attends to his health. I consider it fortunate I am bound for Uncle’s distant place and not condemned to settle somewhere like Mudtown, for the tales of that city’s squalor invite much hesitation. I haven’t visited Uncle in years. He is something of a legend our in family, for he has the faculty to command an auditory response from any inanimate object—that is, he was once a renowned ventriloquist and quite popular thirty years ago. He has since retired to the unexplored wilderness. I am not particularly pleased to have been taken from my studies at the recently built school, as Miss Chloe Clark is an exemplary educator, and neither am I inclined to be a chambermaid. Though frowned upon by my parents, I am proud of my schooling and wish to attain a teaching position. I miss the sweet embrace of my fiancé Matthew, but he understands I have a family duty to uphold. I am not a rebellious daughter. I readily obey my parents’ wishes. The bracing air out here is invigorating; the black soil encourages the growth of tangled green that covers the land in such lavish amounts that I feel as if I’m within a faery tale. This is God’s country indeed. I am weary, but the driver insists my destination is just over the hill. As we draw near Uncle’s home, I notice that the water pump I once frolicked around in my youth is gone. A hole is now in its stead. The pump must have grown soft with rot, for the remaining slimy rock foundation is split by lichen, and there is detritus where it once stood. Retrieving water from the gaping pit may prove an arduous task. This is the first indication of my seclusion. FRIDAY, 9th March, 1849.— Uncle Sutton was most gracious on receiving me. He is still handsome, though a mysterious ailment has sunken his cheeks and furrowed his brow. His once resonant voice is now a despondent croak. Nurse Marjorie has a kindness most beneficial to one of her profession. I have been here less than one day, yet I already find the spacious house to be cold and impassive; the many unoccupied rooms give me alarm for reasons I am unable to articulate. Perhaps it is their advanced state of disrepair? The vines outside have pierced the walls, their growth evident as raised blisters beneath the wallpaper. An unpalatable gloom hangs over all. Despite my reservations, I am quickly acclimated to my new station. Though not one to enjoy scullery work, I am an accomplished cook. This afternoon I prepare a supper of sorrel soup and skewered larks done to a turn, basted with sage butter. The birds have been provided by Daniel, the hunter Uncle hired to provide game and fowl and fish, as well as fruits and vegetables from the nearest town a day’s tramp away. I assume he is also the one responsible for chopping and stacking the monstrous pile of cord wood out back. He reluctantly introduced himself this morning. Daniel is taciturn, a roughly hewn man with a tobacco-stained bushy beard. His hands bear copious scars. Uncle and Marjorie are appreciative of the meal—Uncle says he has subsisted on a diet of milk and hominy for far too long. Now he warms his aged blood before an oak and applewood roaring fire, imbibing a wine-and-honey concoction of his own invention, while Nurse Marjorie stands at his side. I would have preferred a cherry-bounce, as I find Uncle’s cordial disagreeable, lingering on the tongue in a most unpleasant manner. SATURDAY, 10th March, 1849.— This morning, conversation with Uncle Sutton is difficult. He is withdrawn, occupied by thoughts known only to himself. His gaze constantly rests on the window framing the darkness of the forest before the sun has sufficiently risen to banish the hoar-frost and pall. When Uncle does speak, he is pertinacious, only interested in reminiscing about his ventriloquist act. I was not yet born during his fame, but the posters and many reviews my mother preserved over the years attest to just how enthusiastically his unique gifts were received. He continues to talk of performing throughout Europe and America, astonishing thousands with his skill in manifesting words from gentlemen’s pockets, gentlewomen’s teacups, or from the mouth of his moppet Fox-Faced Rannie, which he carried in a pocket. I remember one yellowed, crinkled theatre bill boasting of his holding spirited colloquies with that ill-shaped doll. I recall touching the wax and cloth figure, during the last visit to Uncle’s estate when I was but a girl of ten. Though not so long ago, my memories of that occasion are slight, and I retain an inexplicable air of anxiety on what transpired in this old home far from any village. I ask Uncle if he still has Fox-Faced Rannie, perhaps exhibited with the other trophies and career memorabilia in one of the many rooms I’ve yet to investigate. But he becomes quite agitated and feigns his hearing is inadequate. Nurse Marjorie is silent and grim. I fear I have incurred offense. Afternoon.— A strange occurrence. I enjoy the bird song from the woods as I prepare supper, but notice it is slightly queer sounding, as if mimicry is responsible for the tune. I will speak to Uncle Sutton on this matter. I do not appreciate him practicing his auditory illusions in an attempt to frighten me. I am not comfortable attracting attention by malicious prank. I find this odd however, as Uncle is in his study reading, while Nurse Marjorie prepares medicine. I cannot imagine how one could possibly project sounds through the thick walls and closed doors over such a distance. But I am certain that birdsong is false. A chill now resides within my breast. My demeanor is darkened. I will busy myself with peeling potatoes and gathering water from that foreboding well. The thought of chores illuminates my mood from black to gray. I have contracted a parching fever. I never see any of the birds. SUNDAY, 11th March, 1849.— As there are no churches here to attend, I spend my morning exploring the house after my perfunctory duties are done. I have no hesitation in believing the Lord yet watches over me. The mellow waxing light further reveals the mansion’s age and flaws. The heavy damask curtains have lightened in the direct sunlight, the jabot darkened by decay. There are many floorboards in desperate need of repair. Roaming this place brings memories. I recall one rainy day when Uncle entertained by vociferating from a closet. He then escorted me outside where a queer voice came from the heart of the woodpile. Back in the kitchen, words enunciated echoingly from the belly of a cast iron stove. But that was long ago. It is a curious thing, this ventriloquist talent. To think that it was recently perceived a malefic art, a divine throat spoken, or, conversely, a gift from disreputable imps and devils! But now ventriloquism is all the rage with the public—jugglers and conjurers readily demonstrate its charms. The menacing Carwin of literature has become a thespian, his art a puzzle to be solved. Something to scoff at, as freethinkers are wont to do with the story of Balaam’s ass. Even so, despite my troubles with Uncle’s cleverness, I still retain an emotional thrill on hearing voices from elsewhere. It is a splendid diversion. Afternoon.— In my explorations, I inadvertently come across the room where Uncle has stored his dollhouses. A brief explanation: Uncle was celebrated for the biloquist skill of making his speeches echo from various dollhouses he’d place about the stage. Each and every doll’s domicile delivered a variety of vocalizations—of children, of husbands and wives, of chickens and dogs, of dialects most unusual. He’d created a host of characters to interact with in his show, personalities that chattered from dollhouse to dollhouse. Judging by the fresh paint and unblemished wood, Uncle has managed to carve several impressive structures during his convalescence. His carpentry skills remain unsurpassed; the woodwork is exquisite. Even now I look about the room and marvel at the hand-made craftsmanship, the meticulously designed appliques. Each house is attired in the architectural details appropriate to their era. It is good that Uncle manages to busy himself with a pastime to cultivate his mind, as well as nurture his blood and muscles through physical exertion. His recovery has been a trying one, and I am pleased my visit has coincided with a lilt in his spirits—though I seem to have acquired an intestinal disorder. Such are the conditions one suffers when drinking well water in remote regions. Several older dollhouses remain in a corner of the room. There are holes in their ceilings, paint peels from the exterior. I find sorrow in their neglected state, sobered by the inevitability of Time. Late Evening.— Those wondrous dollhouses have entered my sleep! I’ve taken to dreaming of living within those petite homes, supping from miniscule plates at tiny tables, sleeping on soft, delicate, inviting beds. I am small and happy and wander the halls freely. I exit my blissful dream when I see something moving outside the dollhouse window. That moment of surprise jolts me awake. I immediately recorded these thoughts. O, what wondrously crafted works! MONDAY, 12th March, 1849.— I have nothing of interest to document to-day. TUESDAY, 13th March, 1849.— To-night, while fetching water, I heard a child giggle my name within the well. I dropped the bason in surprise, but quickly became vexed and shouted into the hole, “I am not amused by your tricks Uncle!” The child’s tittering ceased, though I retained a distinct impression someone was down there, squatting in pitch darkness, waiting for me to leave before he continued whatever games he was playing below. I couldn’t be sure of such, as it was too gloomy to see the bottom. It was a most disconcerting feeling, though I know it was only imagination made fervid by the falling sun thickening shadows between the trees, like a dark velvet sheet stretched across a proscenium arch as in one of the curtain-raising Black Art magic acts before Uncle’s shows. In fact, if I hadn’t known they were sparrows returning to their nests for the night, I’d have said those pale shapes dancing in the air between the pine branches could have very well been bones held aloft by black clad assistants. The thought persisted as I walked back to Uncle’s house across the wide field, the gloaming dispersing curious shadows over the ground. On returning to my room, I quickly wrote this entry. WEDNESDAY, 14th March, 1849.— Despite what I fear may be a touch of bilious fever, I decide to enjoy the fresh air. I cross over the field in front of the house and walk deep into the woods. After an hour’s walk, I find an old round stone barn, reminiscent of a structure I’d once seen in Hancock. I was unaware such architecture existed outside of New-England. Whatever its function, I am not convinced it is a barn; there are no ranches and no livestock in these parts which are uninhabited even by Indians or logging camps. The entrance has collapsed, and grasses grow between the wreckage, reclaiming much of the ground. On further inspection, the building’s strange walls and high roof seem church-like in design. A large fragment of stone shows PRAYERS FROM UNOCCUPIED SPACES engraved into its surface. The words before and after have been erased by time and weather. But I cannot fathom why anyone would build a round church in such a faraway place, nor what congregation could possibly have been compelled to travel through such a dense forest to gather for worship. I expect a sexton to make his appearance any moment now! Father once told me they built round barns so as to avoid corners, for evil spirits and demons hide in the shadows of such places. “Devil gonna catch you in the corners,” he’d say to taunt me when I was a child. I am not aware if any churches have been raised with this superstition in mind. Perhaps I will ask Uncle Sutton. I eagerly return through the woods, for that structure fills me with a rapturous fright, as if I am on a precipice yet unable to step away to safety. In my haste I pass the well. Nearby, a few feet distant, I discover a rock wrapped in twine. The cord dangles down into the well’s depths. I withdraw the string from the hole and find it attached to a decomposed opossum, the twine wrapped around its soft bloated neck. Who could have possibly committed such a dreadful sin? I hold the hunter Daniel accountable with nothing to substantiate my suspicions. Fortunately, there remains a large supply of water in a cistern beneath the house’s foundation. THURSDAY, 15th March, 1849.— My nightmare follows thus: The ground is covered with many holes. I walk over the field towards the forest. In that certainty common to dreams, I sense that plumbing the hole’s depths will prove futile, for they have no bottom. I hear whispers emanating from the openings. I pass by these ominous depressions, stepping gingerly so as to avoid slipping into their breadth. The nearer I draw, the more frantic the whispers grow. They repeat my name, “Charlotte! Charlotte!” I see movement between the trees. I move closer, so quietly I float above the grass and dirt and alder cones. I peer between a fan of branches. Fox-Faced Rannie stands in a clearing. I remain as still as a sparrow on a twig with a skulk of predators below. Fox-Faced Rannie tilts his disconcertingly vulpine head, as if detecting the arrival of an unexpected visitor. “Big boys will grease our heads and swallow us whole!” he says in Uncle’s cadence. I awake. I became very ill this night, vomiting with such severity that I fainted back into a sleep so profound no further nightmares could reach me. In the morning, when I went to clean away my sick, I found it wriggling with worms. Perhaps Nurse Marjorie has something to ease my discomfort. Early Morning— Though still recovering from the nightmare, as well as a bout of quick step, I put on my cloak and go for a walk in the woods. I had hoped to acquire medicine from Nurse Marjorie, but she must be assisting Uncle, for I cannot find her anywhere in the house and Uncle’s bedroom door is tightly closed. Nobody answered when I knocked. I normally cherish the landscape during these moments, when it reveals its refinery at dawn, those seconds the sky luridly divulges its magnificence, sun touching the tips of distant wooded peaks, forest magically transforming into a world much more splendid than it normally expresses on its dull face. But I am of a bilious nature; the odor of the mountain air aggravates my dyspepsia. I find Fox-Faced Rannie swaying in a gentle breeze. His tiny fabric jacket and trousers are smothered in a coat of moss. The cord around his throat is frayed and rotten. I looked to the branch from which he was hanged. The bark had grown over the twine in such a thick layer it must have been here many years. I am perplexed as to why Uncle came this far to clamber up a tree to hang his moppet. I am disturbed as to why he committed such a deed. I may inquire as to why he has done this, but do not wish to upset Uncle’s delicate constitution with frivolous investigations. I want to avoid angering him as I did before on mentioning the doll. I return to the house. I take a path that keeps me from passing near the well. FRIDAY, 16th March, 1849.— I have nothing of interest to document to-day. SATURDAY, 17th March, 1849.— While preparing Uncle Sutton’s bed after a restless night’s sleep, I find a diary beneath a pillow. He is currently outside, taking his constitutional with the assistance of Nurse Marjorie. I am ashamed to admit I peeked inside the book. It is a shocking and gratuitously carnal account of Uncle’s dreams and hallucinations. I feel rather ill on exposing myself to these lascivious musings. I will only record a brief excerpt of what I can recall; I am loathe to elaborate with such language: Fox-Faced Rannie stands over my bed. He possesses the soft features of youth, plump faced and wide-eyed, but his tiny body is withered with age, spoiled and wrinkled as the overripe skin of an apple. His prick is erect. He hovers in the air at the side of my bed, moaning most disagreeably. A plaintive cry, as if my knee-figure has yet to master his vocal cords, heartily practicing for my benefit. I am paralyzed during this vision and pray the waking nightmare will cease. Rannie grunts and squeaks. I recognize my own voice channeled from the depths of his belly. I awake, but my words curiously distorted still resonate within the walls. I must be mistaken, for I hear “As the acorn is to stately trees, dollhouses are to sprawling mansions”. I know not what this is meant to convey. I close the diary and return it beneath the pillow. This is the gibberish of a man gravely ill, but I am not one to judge my Uncle’s physical and mental fortitude. I pray no unclean thoughts intrude my sleep to-night. I haven’t heard any birds this morning. The forest has fallen silent. Marjorie is laughing outside, far too long and loud for my comfort. Early Evening.— I have confronted Uncle Sutton. I broached the subject of his emulating birdsong, of frightening me by casting his voice into the well, of Daniel and the opossum; of the stone building in the woods; of Fox-Faced Rannie. I dare not mention the journal. On hearing this, Uncle’s physiognomy altered most remarkably. His countenance was tainted with malignancy, like that of the old man tormenting the Savior in Bosch’s Christ Crowned with Thorns. His incoherent response was the apoplectic rant of a deacon overwhelmed with the Holy Ghost. I’ve noticed that Uncle lapses into these dreadful moods when the sun sets in the beyond, and the chill of night breezes brings the chorus of wildlife through the open windows. But my questions have made him far more agitated than usual at this hour. His outburst is unprecedented in its passion. Sallow skin and sunken eyes attest to the progression of his disease. I must speak with Nurse Marjorie to determine if she too has witnessed Uncle’s strange fits. I pray she may provide succor. SUNDAY, 18th March, 1849.— It is late morning when I find Uncle in his study. He notifies me that Nurse Marjorie’s services were no longer needed. He has dismissed her. He will not hear my protests, that I am untrained in any form of nursing. He ignores my pleas and resumes reading. On returning to my room I hear a tumultuous din. It comes from the storage room filled with dollhouses. I run to throw open the door and find his creations have been shattered into fragments. I don’t know who could have committed this act of vandalism and evaded notice. There are no other doors, and as far as I’m aware, only Uncle and I now reside between these walls. I am confounded as to how he could have left his study, destroyed his dollhouses, then escaped the room without my detection. Curiously, only the old, dilapidated dollhouses remain intact. I now realize they look like small, round churches. I desire nothing more than to return to my very own home. Late Evening.— I fear my prying into Uncle’s journal has forever poisoned my sleep. I dreamt this night of such repugnant images that I am hesitant to write them down. I am compelled to do so nonetheless: Fox-Faced Rannie stands at the foot of my bed. His erection is coiled like a fiddle fern found in great abundance during spring in these parts. His prick unfurls against his jaundiced, splotchy paunch, slaps against the navel as if it is a newly grown cunny. Rannie is tall as a full-grown man, hovering just above the floor. Toenails sharp as the devil’s talons scratch at the wood. His navel opens like a sopping cunt. A stench escapes from its fleshy depths. Something moves inside. Uncle’s voice projects from the maw, “Charlotte dear, big boys will grease our heads and swallow us whole!” A malevolent face peers out at me. I’ve hurriedly written this obscenity down. I hope I may return to sleep. These are not my words. Someone else has scripted this vile passage. I feel a corruption seething in my blood, in my soul. MONDAY, 19th March, 1849.— My heart is broken. Daniel returned from town early this morning, bearing a missive from my parents. My sweet sweet Matthew has hanged himself. Daniel does his best to console me in his rough and uncultured way, but I am inconsolable. I cannot understand why the Lord has taken my love from me. MIDNIGHT.— I awaken to hear myself concluding a sentence whose precise words escape me. Perhaps I’ve been repeating a litany in my sleep, for I sense I’ve spoken a prayer of sorts, unbidden, as if quoting a beloved poem. I search the house. Uncle Sutton is nowhere to be found. I know not where he has taken leave. I found a note in the study. It is written in Uncle’s trembling hand: Daniel has gone far away. I know not where. I fear for Marjorie’s safe transition. I am no longer who I once was, and the new me speaks such atrocities. May the Lord preserve us from that which sullies the blank spaces that were once blissfully unoccupied. Goodbye, dear Charlotte. Pray for me. Despite my concern, I am exhausted and struggle with an aggressive fever. I relax in Uncle’s study and read until sunrise amongst the volumes of blotted sheepskin, moldering manuscripts, and bound editions. I’m distracted by odd sounds deep within the house. Unable to finish any sentences, I find myself plucking at the spines losing their stitch. Curiously, I no longer lament my dear Matthew’s tragic fate. I will worry about Uncle Sutton to-morrow, for I can do little in my state. I dare not leave the house; the nearest haven of civilization would take me far too long to reach, and I must stay here in case Daniel returns with game, or perhaps even Marjorie, forgetting some item necessary for her work. I pray they will bring news of Uncle’s whereabouts. I am filled with a strange apathy. I regret not becoming a rebellious daughter long ago. I’m no longer a meek girl; I am anxious to accept my independence. My waning health and the dimming sun send me back to bed. SUNDAY, 25th March, 1849.— Daniel the hunter has yet to visit again. Marjorie has yet to return. I’ve seen no other soul for many days. The larder is more than sufficiently stocked with jarred foods and canned meats. If necessary, I may stay for months. The house is covered with layers of grime and soot. I do not know why there has been such a hasty accumulation. My hair is tangled, my clothing clotted with filth. The wind whispers my name. I am no longer filled with an acute longing to leave this house, to return to my studies, to go home again. I have little but sorrow awaiting me there. I look out the window as I prepare tea. The oaks and cedars have formed a strangely circular pattern, as if aspiring to become curved walls. A clump of bushes at the forest’s entrance suggests a wide entryway, the trunks beyond a sturdy door. There is a delicacy to the manner the branches and leaves and saplings spread, their varied colors interwoven to create side gables and many windows arranged in strict symmetry. The forest canopy is now a roof. A thought comes to me: As the acorn is to stately trees, dollhouses are to sprawling mansions. There is movement in the forest. I no longer believe those pale shapes I viewed several days ago to be birds. I pray aloud. I am suffused with a sacred thrill on wondering how sweetly the Lord’s numinous pronouncements will saturate my soul with such great love. As my pitch rises, I hear my prayers emerge from deep within the forest, reflected back to me in a multitude of utterances. I do not recognize any of the voices. Not even my own. The post PseudoPod 732: Devil Gonna Catch You in the Corners appeared first on PseudoPod.
55 minutes | 2 months ago
PseudoPod 731: The Genetic Alchemist’s Daughter
Author : Elaine Cuyegkeng Narrator : Rebecca Wei Hsieh Host : Alasdair Stuart Audio Producer : Chelsea Davis Discuss on Forums This story was originally published in Black Cranes edited by Lee Murray and Geneve Flynn. (2020) Reviews at the end by Associate Editor M.M. Schill, read by Assistant Editor Karen Bovenmyer. Black Cranes is an anthology edited by Lee Murray and Geneve Flynn. Halloween Season is a collection by Lucy A. Snyder. The Genetic Alchemist’s Daughter by Elaine Cuyegkeng She dreams of death and rebirth on her mother’s table. The smell of antiseptic: chemicals, artificial cherries and other-fruit. The specimen on the table. Herself, slipping a needle under the specimen’s skin to obtain samples for reconstruction. Finally, the disposal of the body while the new one grows inside her crimson egg, kicking her little amphibian feet. Later, a telepathic matrix imparts an (edited) library of the Prodigal’s memories. This reinforces the desired traits, knitted carefully into the genome. In twelve days and twelve nights, there will be a single, perfected being: waking in the specimen’s old room with only a vague, uneasy sense of displaced time. There will be no official record, no trace of the original (save for the genetic profiles, buried deep in her mother’s libraries). Everyone dreams those strange, mundane dreams of themselves performing their daily rites. The genetic alchemist’s daughter is no different; why should she be? But still, Leto Alicia Chua Mercado wakes as if she were a child waking from a nightmare. Leto thinks: there are fragments of bone and marrow in her pyjamas, in her blankets, her bed. For a moment, her hands are viscous with ruby red. The Genetic Alchemists Leto is her mother’s daughter, and so, when she wakes, blinking out crimson dreams in the pre-dawn, the day’s business is the first thing that occupies her. Nothing in Leto’s creation was left to chance; the same is true of Chua Mercado Genetic Alchemy. Below, the family’s laboratories gestate the fruits of several lucrative contracts. Tiny mermaid embryos, for a techno-prince’s private aquarium. A new variant of winged cat: Bengal Beauties, with jade eyes and leopard spots, jewelled peregrine’s wings. Luminous Moths, ordered by an exclusive fashion house for their silk. There are the Prodigals, the human specimens who will be delivered to their families’ holdings, waking in the original’s old room as if from a dream. And finally, there are the little Seraphim, tiny embryos swimming in their exo-wombs. The bulk of these are still ordered by foreign CEOs—grateful for the assurance of a rarefied offspring, grateful to be spared the inconveniences of caring for pregnant wives. One day, Leto’s mother hopes, the world will be full of them. There will be no Prodigals, no broken creatures in need of repair. (Leto feels a tenderness for them. She doesn’t know why—perhaps it’s their shared origins. The fact she knows, and they don’t. Leto’s mother scoffs at that. You’re not a specimen. You’re my daughter.) But Leto has always been what she is: the girl with all the gifts, Ofelia Chua Mercado’s irrefutable proof. All the world had seen Leto in her womb, the tiny crimson egg Ofelia created. It made Ofelia’s fortune and her infamy. How the Manilero elite were scandalized! Ofelia had created Leto without the help of a husband, without the blessing of the Holy Apostolic Church (or any church), simply because. Priests cried about the dissolution of the family from their cathedrals, pastors from their multi-million-dollar pulpits. But hereditary heads of state, foreign billionaires, Hollywood queens—all of them came clamouring for Ofelia’s service. Leto’s mother waits for her at the breakfast table. She is a slender woman, not beautiful but magnificent. She has a cruel mouth, a hard face, a hooked nose as if she truly were the witch the more poetic among the Manila elite call her. Her black hair falls in rivulets down her back. No matter the demands of the day, Ofelia Chua Mercado insists on taking this time: the time to sit down and have a meal with family. She didn’t create a daughter just to neglect her. She prides herself on having better husbandry of children. On the table are buttered toast, salted duck eggs, slices of chilled fruit. “Today’s clients will need careful handling,” Ofelia murmurs, handing her daughter the day’s dossiers. “I know you’ve managed them before, but darling, today, I need you to resist the urge to gloat.” Leto opens the dossiers. She understands the moment her eyes fall on the client’s name. She doesn’t smirk; she knows it’s unladylike. Ever since she was a tiny thing, old enough to be presented in a sad little classroom with portraits of saints, every single one of her classmates had hated her. They called her soulless. They said: You don’t have a papa. And yet, over time, so many of them ended up on Leto’s table. She carefully explained all the reasons why their families elected them for the procedure. She feels that they’re owed an explanation, but she can’t help feeling some satisfaction. She had never disappointed her mother. “Not one Prodigal,” Ofelia says, sipping her tea, “but three. Can you imagine that, darling? Imagine if they’d come to us from the beginning. It would have spared them so much trouble.” It’s an old, old story. It is the puzzle that so many familial dynasties have tried to resolve. How does one halt the decline that seems to seep in the third, fourth generation? Sixteen, eighteen, twenty years old, and their beloved offspring showed signs of delinquency, addiction, general malaise, rebellion, depression, of all things. They showed poor scholarship. How does one save a child from themselves? Eighteen years of Mandarin lessons, ballet or music, and Catholic school didn’t fix them. The Church and the promise of heaven can’t fix them. Manila might have been horrified by Ofelia, the woman who made a daughter. But as the decades passed, one by one, they crept to Ofelia’s door, and begged her for her help. They turned to her genetic alchemy and, over the years, a whisper network has formed between desperate, gossiping mothers, patriarchs over games of golf and exquisite lunches. Leto feels her fingers itch. Thinks of the discarded original, turning to ash in the furnace while a new, tiny creature emerges whole from Leto’s artistry. All her fellow heirs have hated her: have always hated her. But here she is anyway, granting them a gift unbidden. They will never even know. Her mother rises and kisses her cheek. “Good hunting, my sweet girl,” Ofelia murmurs, and Leto blushes. Her mother knows her, inside and out. Better than she knows herself. The Dowager When Leto goes to meet clients, she brings her mother’s wares as if they are the trappings of their self-appointed office. In her arms, she brings a winged cat with snow-white plumage, her little feet ending in owl’s talons and one blue eye alongside jade (feline specimens with heterochromia fetch three times the price). A speckled serpent with a forked tongue wraps himself around Leto’s neck like a regent’s gold necklace (base specimen: Atheris hispida). And finally, after a moment’s consideration, Leto carefully selects amber earrings made from the chrysalises of Luminous Moths. She picks up a rose as white as a funeral, a present for the Dowager. She paints her mouth with a neutral pink (edging towards a baby pastel); lines her eyes with modest shadow (Industrial Revolution—a shade popular among her peers). She takes her little slate and programs the nanites in her hair; they colour it a deep black with only the faintest streaks of a foreign autumn. Leto understands what the heart wants: it wants a useful young woman, modest and helpful, who will solve all their problems with a flick of her manicured fingers. Leto meets clients because her existence says: you could have a helper, a dutiful, reliable heir. The child you need, if only you had asked for our services from the beginning. She revels in clients’ gritted teeth and fingers pressed into their palms—how they hate being proven wrong! She sits herself at the little table, waits for the client to arrive. And when the Dowager slips into Chua Mercado’s rooms, dressed as if for a funeral (or a cocktail), Leto can’t help it. She rises up and kisses the Dowager’s cheeks like a fond niece. The Dowager closes her eyes; she smells, very faintly, of very fine, expensive whiskey. She shudders; or perhaps, it’s poor Leopold that terrifies her, the gorgeous speckled band winding himself around Leto’s neck, or Anne-Marie, the snow-white cat purring in her arms. Here is Leto, an unnatural thing, decked out in unnatural things. But the Dowager needs her help. “I have three daughters,” the Dowager says with a rasp. “And they will all be the ruin of me.” Her elegant hand trembles as she sits in the client’s chair. Outside, Leto smiles; inside, a frisson of schadenfreude ticks upwards in spite of herself. She knows the Dowager’s daughters: they are just like every other classmate who’s ended up on her mother’s table. “Why don’t you tell me what you need, Tita?” Leto asks. Like the witch in the story. What do you need? What do you lack? What price are you willing to pay? The Dowager is Eva Maria Romano Iglesia—scion of a saintly house, married to a handsome media pastor in her baby-faced youth. She was a woman alone of all the multi-million-dollar pastors: having inherited the position after his untimely death. She preached in Chanel and pearls, wasp-waisted dresses with billowing skirts, and spoke of love and deference to husbands and fathers. She spoke of the sanctity of the family, this woman with no husband, and adoring crowds of women threw money at her. She was the most vicious of Ofelia’s detractors, when Leto and the exo-womb were unveiled. She called Leto soulless. She called Ofelia a fallen woman, creating a child outside the sanctity of marriage, outside the bounds of God’s intended methods. But now two tiny granddaughters are dead. A son-in-law is set to be buried tomorrow, and the daughters are locked in their rooms in the family compound. “I need you and your mother to give me the daughters I should have had from the beginning,” the Dowager says. She almost spits. How it humbles her, to be abandoned so by the God who showered her in gold but gave her delinquent children on which to build her church. “Our congregation needs us,” the Dowager whispers, clutching her Chanel pearls. An entire congregation of lost souls—expensive women with husbands who loathe them, girls who became pregnant too early. They all find solace in the Dowager and her family of perfect women. What happens when the image that gives them so much comfort comes crashing down? Leto is never really interested in all the clients’ reasons why this has to be done. She’d rather hear from the specimens themselves. Console them on their deathbeds. “We’ll need to stagger them out,” Leto says. “One by one, to accommodate schedules for other clients.” “I want it over and done with, as soon as possible.” “I understand,” Leto says evenly. And nothing more. (Really, Leto just wants her to anguish over it, just a little longer.) Silence settles between them. Leto feels the Dowager acquiesce. No one else can help her. She can’t disappear three young women and gain their replacements, their better selves, on her own. She can’t create a replacement daughter, and raise her, not at her age. The Dowager is old. She is running out of time. “No one will know?” The Dowager’s hands tighten around her cane. “No one will know,” Leto says softly. “From head to toe, down to their cells, they will be exactly the same.” Leto takes the pale white rose, as perfect as a faerie dress. They named it Blanca Nieve. It smells like a perfumed night. She gives it to the Dowager. Places it carefully on the table, along with a lacquered box containing its food. Ten little nightingale corpses. “People need to see you leave with it in your hands,” she tells her. “So you’ve had a reason to come to us. Feed it with ten nightingales. You won’t be disappointed.” The next day, a funeral for the Dowager’s son-in-law is held in her stained-glass church. The cathedral arches are snow-white with roses, and they spill down the steps of the church, singing with bell-like voices. No one even sees the bones. Faith She starts with the youngest. Why not? They take her from the family compound. They place her, fast asleep, on Leto’s table in the lab. Faith is a delicate snow-white beauty: long limbs, a small head, the fair skin that Manileros prize so much. It’s at odds with Faith’s reputation. Leto waits, and watches as the specimen slowly blinks herself awake. The upsurge in fear when she realizes that she’s strapped to the table. When she realizes that she’s not alone. Leto doesn’t see what she does as revenge, as former classmates have accused her when they have woken up to find themselves in her lab. She sits with the specimens, waits for them to wake up. It feels wrong to her, simply destroying the originals without explaining why their families requested the procedure. She hopes that a vague memory of that conversation settles into the client’s cells. When they perform the process, create the new, perfected specimen, the Prodigal will not relapse. “Faith?” Leto says. Her words come out muffled behind her mask. The girl stops struggling; she recognizes Leto’s voice. “Oh God,” says Faith, and the pretty girl laughs. “All the stories they said about you are true.” Leto’s hairs prick up at the back of her neck. When they were children, Leto was the witch’s daughter. Now, as adults, she is her mother’s right hand, her coolly competent heir and that is where her story ends. All the specimens returned to the client families have had their memories edited: they know nothing of her mother’s labs. But her classmates know nothing of Prodigals, of Leto’s part in the process. They know nothing of the Procedure. It’s in their parents’ interest: that their children know nothing. They’d rather forget the unpleasantness and have their baby back (they never really will). “Do you know why you’re here?” she asks Faith. Faith laughs and pulls at the straps. “I killed my sister’s husband,” Faith rasps. “We did it together, you know. Me. Charity. Harmony. We pushed him off the balcony.” They’d said it was an accident. Pat del Rosario—beloved husband, beloved son-in-law—falling over the balcony in the family’s multi-million-dollar compound. Thank God, the Dowager had board positions on various media boards: his death was announced without mention of murder or suicide. They had locked Faith in her room until the funeral and she had appeared with the rest of the family, her stony face easily interpreted as a perfect mask of dignified grief. “I did it knowing you’d show up,” Faith whispers. “You knew nothing of the sort,” Leto says. Her voice is even, but under the table, her hand shakes. Faith has no reason to believe Leto would show up. She has no reason to believe in her mother’s lab. Leto is not a fairy tale, the way the Prodigals she perfects are fairy tales. They emerge perfect and whole under her fingers, blessed with cool-eyed competence, the smothering of their genetic demons. “Do you even want to know why?” Faith asks. “I know you want to tell me,” Leto says. It doesn’t matter what they tell her; the procedure will go ahead anyway. But it’s as if she’s a confessor tending to a penitent on their deathbed. How can she say no? You’re not a specimen, Ofelia had told Leto. You’re my daughter. But still, the fact remains: Leto was created to prove the viability of her mother’s product, the efficacy of her mother’s services. Ofelia edited Leto’s genes. She edited them for beauty, for genius, for musicality, an affinity for maths and languages, all those things that the ultra-rich crave in their children. They like to feel as if their genes have given rise to better stock, better product. Leto was engineered for obedience, which meant she was inclined to recognize her mother’s authority in all things. Her mother had been frank about this: there was no point in raising a child who spurned all her gifts. From the moment Leto stepped inside a classroom, she had excelled, surpassing her peers. It gave the elite of Manila something to consider, even as they called her soulless. When their beloved babies grew up, showing signs of rot by the time they reached their teens, they turned to Ofelia Chua Mercado and her helpful, perfect daughter. Who swap out imperfect specimens for better ones. Or at least, they edit the genetic code, so they are more inclined to conform to their parents’ expectations. They’re like fairy godmothers, granting obedience as a gift. Faith had failed from the beginning. Even when she and her sisters were little, when the Dowager paraded them around as her little saints, Faith was infamous for her rage. There was a party, when a group of boys held her down to take her photo (wasn’t it sweet? Babies and their games!). She’d pushed one of them down the stairs, and he broke his leg, right there on the Dowager’s immaculate floors. When they were all older, there was another incident, another more grown college party, when she’d taken out someone’s eye. The Dowager said: they’d hoped she’d grow out of it. That time and patience and their guidance would temper her. It honestly surprised Leto that it’s taken Faith this long to come to her table. (Leto’s mother said, scoffing, that they should have edited Faith’s anger out of her, long ago. Leto had wisely kept quiet. She doesn’t blame Faith, the way her mother did. But she knows what traits are desirable and what aren’t—they don’t like rage in little girls.) And now there’s a dead body that they’ve had to cover up with bribes and ritual, and a snow-white funeral. “He killed Charity’s babies,” Faith snarls. “Did Mommy tell you that? He killed her girls.” It was in the dossier—a sad obituary in the Manila Times of the Dowager’s twin granddaughters. But babies often die for strange, unknown, and unknowable reasons. Especially when they’re so small. “He put stuffed toys in their crib,” Faith says. “It’s a SIDS risk: everyone knows that. They kept telling him to stop; he laughed and kept doing it. Look, she loves her little teddy. What’s the harm? Everyone said: Men don’t raise children, it’s not in them. You can’t expect them to understand. It was Charity’s responsibility: after all, she was their mother. “Charity couldn’t stay awake forever. She tried. We all did. He found reasons to keep us away. And one day she found him standing over their crib with a pillow—and her baby girls were dead.” She closes her eyes. “A house full of people who were supposed to love them, and they all said she was hysterical. They didn’t believe her. Poor Charity. He barely cried.” “Why would he do that?” Leto asks. She really shouldn’t have asked. All Faith wants is to unburden herself. “He wanted boys,” Faith says. “It’s not as if he hid that. He was so disappointed when they came out! And Charity was so happy—his disappointment was such a small thing to her, at least in the beginning. That she loved something he didn’t.” “Annulment was an option, you know.” It’s not that she objects to what Faith did; it’s that she should have been clever about it. She starts thinking of ways to snip the rage out of her, or at least temper it. They can modify memories to reinforce caution. “Annulment isn’t part of our brand,” Faith says. “It’s not an option for us. Can you imagine the scandal? Lola would kill us first. Mommy would.” That, Leto thinks, unfortunately is true. “I’d have been more careful about it than you,” Leto says. Faith laughs. “We were past careful,” Faith says. “After he killed the girls. After they all said Charity was hysterical and not thinking clearly. They even blamed her: Lola, Mommy, our aunts. We shut them up when we threw him down the balcony.” Leto starts prepping her needle. She needs to draw blood; their work is easy, really. They have such a rich source of DNA. “So what are you going to do?” Faith asks. “Replace me with a soulless little drone? A more palatable version of me?” “Don’t be so dramatic,” Leto says. “I can’t make or remove a soul. I’d make a version of you that wouldn’t have gotten caught.” It’s not quite what Faith’s mother would have wanted. It’s not what Ofelia Chua Mercado would have wanted. But there is no one here to gainsay her decision. She’s not sure why or how she decided this: that Faith is entitled to her anger. But here she is. “It’s alright,” Leto says, and she is back on familiar ground. “It’s alright. You won’t even remember this happened. The you that wakes up won’t even remember this.” And if the new Faith doesn’t remember and the old Faith is simply erased, does Faith even suffer? She lets Faith see the tiny little selves, swimming in their little crimson eggs, before she puts her to sleep. It seems to calm Faith: watching tender little creatures made from her bone and marrow. Leto dresses the new specimen herself when she emerges, perfect and whole. The new Faith will be little more calculating, a little less given to rages. If the new Faith does need to act on her rage, she will take better care not to get caught. The Prodigal is returned to the family. The Dowager sends back a message, saying: Faith is much improved. Leto imagines the Dowager breathing a little easier even as Faith is counting her grudges and biding her time. Counting down the days, until it’s all done. Leto schedules the next two procedures. She takes her time. Charity She was the last person Leto had thought would end up on her table. The middle sister: kind-hearted and soft, the kind of girl who deflected other people’s faults. The fairy tale girl people say they want but, in reality, isn’t equipped to keep a dynasty together. Still, she had that fairy tale wedding, married the boy her family picked for her. The Dowager was very clear about her specifications: they want their sweet girl back, before she went wrong. “Really,” Leto told her mother wearily, over chai tea and congee for breakfast, “they want a Charity who doesn’t remember how much her family failed her. They want a Charity who won’t make them feel guilty, every time they look at her.” “If that’s what they want to believe,” Ofelia said. She shrugged her elegant shoulders. It’s cheating, but it’s not quite cheating, is it, if a Prodigal is exactly the same, just slightly improved? It’s the improvements they focus on. Leto didn’t tell her mother about what Faith had said. It’s not that she believes Faith, exactly, but… When Charity wakes up, when she sees Leto, she looks almost resigned. There’s no shock. Ice pricks at the back of Leto’s neck. Charity should be shocked. Charity should cry for help. Why doesn’t she? “I knew something was wrong,” she says. “When Faith came back… She wasn’t herself.” Leto doesn’t answer. “Poor Faith. Did she feel anything? Was it fast?” “What can you possibly know about the procedure?” Charity laughs, a sad little laugh that almost sounds like affection. “We all talk about it, you know,” she says. “All our old classmates, all our old friends.” None of you were ever my friends. Leto digs her nails into her palms. She is not…she is not supposed to be the monster in anyone else’s story. She’s more than that unveiled creature in the womb, more than the girl in the schoolroom, more than the witch’s baby everyone decided they should hate. “I’m frankly surprised that you don’t know. I would have thought that your mother would have told you. We could never match you in scholarship, but we’re not stupid. Sometimes an old classmate would show up and…they weren’t quite themselves. They would remember things—but in slightly different ways. We heard about the oldies’ little whisper network. They say there’s a little dungeon somewhere—where all the bodies are kept. There’s a little lab where you clone tiny little creatures to replace us. That you sell our souls yourself.” Leto’s heart is beating fast. There is no reason. There is no reason why Charity and her friends should know. The specimens’ memories of her mother’s workshops are wiped. The Prodigals are returned to their rooms, and they don’t remember—they don’t remember anything of their time as tiny little creatures in blood-red eggs, their hatching. If what Charity says is true and there are whispers of the process, and Leto’s part in it… How could she not know that she has turned into a story she has no control over? How could her mother not know? She feels like she’s back in that dreary little room again: her classmates whispering poison, spinning stories she has no control over. Charity watches her face. “Do you remember?” she asks. “Do you remember anything—from before?” “Before what?” Charity closes her eyes and sighs, as if she is very tired and ready to go to sleep. She opens them again, and her eyes fix on Leto. “I wouldn’t tell your mother about this conversation if I were you.” “We tell each other everything,” Leto says. “Do you?” Charity asks. “Do you really? Do you ever wonder about the little gaps in your memory—” She doesn’t have to pay attention to this. She doesn’t. “Look at me,” Charity says, her voice soft and urgent. “I did everything my mother wanted. I married a boy she wanted. I gave up the idea of a master’s degree in science. And still—look at where I am right now.” Leto twitches, remembers her dreams of little feet, a crimson world. “I wasn’t expecting to have to destroy everything I was when I married,” Charity whispers. “I wasn’t expecting to destroy everything I loved. That wasn’t the bargain I thought I made. Do you remember your Bella Norte?” When she was fourteen, Leto had engineered little bees who sang like bells and were nocturnal. As sweet and docile as Charity. She’d been frankly surprised that the Dowager had purchased a specimen from Chua Mercado Alchemy. A birthday gift for her middle daughter, who later became obsessed with beekeeping. “They never really caught on,” Leto says. That was the trouble with new patents. “Do you remember?” Charity asks. “Do you remember making them for me?” Leto just stares. She’d done nothing of the kind. She made them, Charity ordered them, and that was the end of it. Charity sighs, softly. “I kept beds and beds of nocturnal flowers to feed them. I did everything you told me to, even when you stopped answering my letters. Nocturnal roses, honeysuckle, lavender. Leto can’t even remember why she made them: only that she did. “Mommy and Lola never approved. Pat wanted me to stop: they were dangerous to me and the baby. Who knew what they were picking up while they were dancing in the dark? Who knew how reliable the patent was, how docile they really were? I went on a trip to the States; I came back to find most of my hives burned. Lola said: But it’s such a little thing. Mommy said: You have babies now. You won’t even notice they’re gone.” Charity closes her eyes. “And then the girls turned out to be girls. We didn’t even want to know—he was so sure God would give us what he deserved. I took their blood. I cut their hair. I wanted something to remember them by, just like I kept the bees to remember you.” She breathes in, breathes out. Looks over at Leto, whose face is carefully blank. She would have no reason. Her mother would have no reason to remake her. Leto is perfect, has been perfect, since the beginning. She was engineered for beauty, for intelligence, reliability. There is nothing that Leto wants, outside of what her mother needs. “They were right,” Charity whispers. “Oh God, they were right.” Leto doesn’t answer. She preps her needle. “Listen to me,” Charity says, before she slips off to sleep under Leto’s needle. “You’re not so different from us. Someone should have told you that from the beginning. I’m sorry we didn’t.” Charity is easier, in many ways. They keep the base genetic profile. They edit her memories. Faith did it. Harmony did it. Charity just watched. Leto goes through an entire album of memories, editing things out, snipping inconvenient ones. When the new Prodigal wakes in her room, she is more certain of her mother’s authority, of her mother’s love and adoration. The need to defer to her authority. She won’t remember that conversation with Leto, in the lab below. Leto should talk to her mother. She should talk to her, but something stops her, every time. Leto stays in the lab, watching over the dreaming specimens. Cinderella, over the turtledoves that shake gold and silver over her. She thinks of the ashes of every discarded specimen, feeding her mother’s roses. Faith, Charity, an endless, endless parade of names before them. And she wonders, she wonders. How many of them were her? How many dreams has she had, of a crimson world and kicking feet? Can she count all the times she might have been remade? She wouldn’t even know when it began, what had been the starting point. She walks into the garden at twilight, where the apiaries of little Bella Norte are kept. Their little feet brush against her cheek like a kiss. Do you know more of me than I do? she asks them. Do you? Harmony The eldest daughter escapes. She must have seen the writing on the wall, Leto muses to herself when it happens. The Dowager is beside herself. It would not have happened, it would not have happened, if Leto had done all three of them at once like she had asked. You should have known better than to let the other girls out, is all Leto thinks. Ofelia lets the Dowager know, calmly, that matters are being handled and shoots Leto a look. Leto understands: she wants Leto to fix it. The foundations of the world her mother is building depends on Chua Mercado’s reliability, their reputation. She needs to undo the damage she’s caused. But Leto spends some time in the garden, among the specimens and patents that never quite caught on. She spends some time with the Bella Norte bees, waking in the moonlight, settling on Leto’s dress like golden dust. You made them for me, said Charity. Why would Leto do that? What did she owe her? She considers that Charity and Faith may be right, that her mother has been wiping her memory, altering her like a story that she can’t quite perfect. She should be terrified. She should be outraged, but all she feels is hollow. She wonders if anger was edited out of her too. “I don’t know what to do,” she says, honestly, to the Bella Norte bees, as if they could answer her. They track Harmony down in a shabby little street in Binondo, in a shabby little room. Leto insists on going herself. After all, it was her mistake. At that, something inside Ofelia seems to untwist and loosen. She kisses Leto on the cheek. She says: She knows Leto will make it right. Everyone makes mistakes. We all learn from them. We make ourselves perfect. Leto lets herself into the shabby little room, and there is Harmony, waiting. The survivors of Charity’s bees surround her, drinking sugar water. Harmony is tall and striking, even with her hair slick with the humidity and the lack of care over the past few days. Charity was the sweetheart, Faith was the baby, but Harmony was meant to be their mother, all over again. It must have galled the Dowager, when Harmony picked her sisters over her mother. That was not the natural way of things. Leto isn’t sure what edits to make to improve those outcomes. “We all know you’d come for us, you know,” says Harmony. She doesn’t move. The bees settle around her, as if she is their saint. “So I’ve heard,” says Leto. Harmony raises her eyebrow. “What do you remember?” Harmony asks, point blank. Leto says nothing. “What do you remember?” Harmony asks. “How many times did she make you over, so she could start all over again, a clean slate?” Leto thinks of the ashes in her mother’s garden. Whether any of them are made up of her former selves. She wouldn’t know when her mother started. She wouldn’t even know where to begin. “I know about Charity’s daughters,” she says, her voice hollow. “I know about the bees.” Harmony sighs, and her shoulders slump over. “We didn’t know,” she says, “if she’d remake you, over and over again. Just to make sure you couldn’t remember. Do you remember? Making the bees for Charity? Do you?” Leto feels breathless. A little bella norte lands on her cheek. “She cried when you stopped answering her letters,” says Harmony. “When we passed by each other and you acted as if you didn’t know her. And later—when classmates came back, from rehab, from sabbaticals, from tours, not quite right, well, we all wondered.” It’s like a knife to her ribs. She doesn’t—she can’t feel anything. Harmony gives her a box. “I’d do it again you know,” she says, between her teeth. “I would pick Faith and Charity, every time. Every time. Hollow me out, empty me of all the inconvenient things my mother wants gone, and I’d still make the same choice.” “What’s inside?” Leto asks. But she already knows. The Dowager sends payment: all three Prodigals, successfully remade. She even gifts Leto with the survivors of Charity’s bees. They have no use for them, and the girl is getting married again in the fall. Another fairy tale wedding. Then: one for Faith, and one for Harmony. She’s already signed contracts for little Seraphim to be made. “Well done,” Ofelia says, and kisses her cheek. Another death, smoothed over. Because these girls wanted something outside what they should want. What does Leto want? Nothing except her work. There’s nothing that her mother left her. So she creates a second variant of the Bella Norte, from the daughters of Charity’s bees. They have Faith’s anger; Charity’s love; Harmony’s loyalty. And inside, inside, they contain slivers of memory, two baby girls avenged by their mother and aunts. Leto’s daughters have no debut: they are not presented to the world the way Leto was. Instead, she lets them fly wild. That year, the Dowager and her congregation will be haunted at night time by bees that sing like wind chimes, that smell of baby’s breath, and build cathedrals inside her church. At her wedding, Charity will turn to look at them, and she won’t know why she feels joy and heartbreak. Faith will wonder as she lets them settle on her shoulders and Harmony will feel a strange peace, even as the bees murder her mother’s congregation. They’ll say it’s a miracle, that the three of them are left alive. The post PseudoPod 731: The Genetic Alchemist’s Daughter appeared first on PseudoPod.
36 minutes | 3 months ago
PseudoPod 730: The Smell of Night in the Basement
Author : Wendy N. Wagner Narrator : Kara Grace Host : Alasdair Stuart Audio Producer : Chelsea Davis Discuss on Forums PseudoPod 730: The Smell of Night in the Basement is a PseudoPod original. Content warning: Spoiler Inside SelectShow Gutter vampires, exploitation The Smell of Night in the Basement by Wendy N. Wagner I looked up when Carlos came in with a girl, two Domino’s pizzas, and a bag of marijuana gummies. It was a big basement, finished in places, dirt in others, a kind of half-assed bathroom in the corner with no walls or a door for privacy. You got used to smelling somebody drop a deuce or rinse blood out of their hair in the utility sink. They said they were vampires. Sometimes I believed them and sometimes I didn’t, but I didn’t really care. I got enough to eat. There was always plenty of drugs and dancing and people to fuck. The screams bothered me sometimes, but not so much I wanted to leave the basement or Luca. Not that he would have let me leave. Carlos brought her down the stairs, and she almost tripped on her sparkled flip-flops. Her ankles were all tiny and tendons, like deer ankles. A red patch of bug bites spread up the stick of her left shin. She blinked at me and stood real still when Carlos shoved her into the middle of the room. “She was sleeping in the back of a car,” he said. “Look how little and cute she is.” Alicia poked the side of the girl’s neck with one of her long nails. The girl flinched away. “Awfully skinny.” “And young,” Carlos said. “She said she started high school last week.” I picked up my new nail polish, Electric Acid Orange, to show I was more interested in my manicure than a scrawny little mixed girl. “She’s been on the streets a long time. She’s probably a junkie.” I rolled the bottle between my palms to warm the polish. I cut her a side-eye. She was super cute with her long black hair and her button nose. Even Luca would probably think she was cute. “Definitely a junkie.” “Fuck off,” Carlos said. “If I want a pet, I can have one.” Gabriel emerged from the tunnel Carlos had started digging on the other side of the bathroom. “Only if Luca gives you permission,” they reminded Carlos. Then they shot me a look. They still resented Luca for keeping me around. They gave their spiked collar a twist as they stood there looking at the girl, running their tongue over their teeth. Alicia opened the pizza box and took out a slice. Pepperoni and pineapple, because Carlos bought it. Alicia looked at the girl. “She right? You been working the streets?” The girl nodded. She looked a little less scared, too, which I didn’t like. You act like you’re not scared, they might let you stick around. That’s how it had worked for me. I put down the nail polish and crawled over the stack of mattresses so I could see her better. Up close, she looked even younger than Carlos said she was. She’d been wearing pink lipstick earlier, and it had left a stain around her mouth like she’d been eating a Popsicle. My momma used to give me Popsicles after I blew her johns to get the taste out of my throat. No one in the basement eats Popsicles. That’s one reason I like it here. “What’s your name?” I asked. “Kendra.” Her eyes went to my nails, still Sugar Poppin’ Pink because I hadn’t had a chance to start my manicure. “I like your nails,” she said, barely audibly. “She’s cute.” Carlos took a bite of pizza. Grinned. “Like a puppy.” “Don’t get too attached,” Alicia warned. “You know Luca says we’ve got enough pets.” She glanced at me when she said it. I tried to look cuter as I reached for a piece of pizza. “Pets?” Kendra asked. Her eyes looked impossibly big. Carlos offered her a slice. “You just eat this, baby girl. Luca won’t be home for a while yet.” I went back to my spot behind the mattresses and watched them eat. Carlos finished his slice of pizza, patted the girl on the head, and then returned to the tunnel. I could hear his shovel scraping in the darkness. Alicia had picked up last week’s New Yorker again and was slowly nibbling crust while she turned the pages. Her roots showed brown against the white of her hair, because Luca said we didn’t have the money for salon days. He’d still bought me my Electric Orange Acid polish, though. I was his pet, not the rest of them’s. The upstairs floor groaned, so I sat up straight. Marcie and Luca had gone out hunting hours ago. She doesn’t usually take long. She’s so pretty with her short red hair—men will follow her anyplace, no matter how dark and cold. But it could still be Luca up there. He’s choosy, but he’s lucky, too. The door at the top of the stair swung open, and Luca slipped inside, all blond hair and club clothes. A dolled-up granny leaned on one arm. Her smile was so glassy I could see my reflection in it. Luca saw me looking and winked at me. Then he turned back to his cougar, and as she looked up for a kiss and a cuddle, he gave the small of her back a shove. She somersaulted down the stairs with a crunch and a crack and a whimper. “Soup’s on,” Luca announced. He threw back his head and laughed. Gabriel pounced on the woman, their pudgy hands closing around her throat and squeezing hard. Alicia grabbed the woman’s feet and wrapped them tight in duct tape. Unconscious was best for storage. Semi-conscious was best for dinner. Awake was for play time. Gabriel switched their grip to the woman’s shoulders. They had some kind of sixth sense about how much life was left in a body. “Muscle up, Alicia.” She grunted as she hoisted the old woman higher. I saw the woman give a twitch and a jerk, but Alicia and Gabriel trucked her into the darkness too quickly to see if she had come awake or not. Carlos’s voice carried low and rumbly out of the tunnel, probably making some kind of joke about Luca’s catch, and they all laughed. They had a lot of good times in that tunnel. I stayed far, far away from it. Luca dumped the contents of the woman’s purse on the floor. He opened her wallet. “Fifty-five dollars in cash,” he complained. “Hardly worth it.” He picked a plastic shopping bag out of the mess. “At least she took me to Whole Foods on the way here.” He began to spread a buffet of chocolate bars and snacks across the mattress heap. Chocolate made him happy. Happy people like spending time with their pets. I crawled across the floor to kneel beside him. “Looks like you landed a rich one.” A bit absently, he stroked my hair. I was glad Alicia had let me wash it this morning. “My favorite prey. Middle-aged women with plenty of money who don’t look too closely at what they want to fuck.” I leaned into his hand, pushing his nails into my scalp. “You’re so clever, Luca.” I could see Kendra watching me, her eyes unreadable. I hoped she wouldn’t learn my tricks too quickly. I shifted so I blocked Luca’s view of her stupid cute face and smiled my best smile. He patted the top of my head. “Are you being sweet just to get a treat?” I shook my head, wide-eyed. “You know how much I like you.” He put his hand in his pocket and then flipped a dime bag onto the ground. I snatched it up. He laughed to see me like that. I should have hated him for making me crawl in the dirt, but for the moment, I could pretend he wasn’t even there. It was just me and the little bag. White powder, probably Molly. Hopefully Molly. I fucking loved that shit. I poured some on the back of my hand and took a good lick. It was Molly. I took a little sniff, just to get the party started faster. Luca kicked me in the hip, hard. “What’s that?” I turned to look at him, and he pulled the bag out of my hand. He pointed with the other. “That.” Kendra huddled on the bathroom floor with the empty pizza box, scraping cheese off the lid. She looked smaller and scareder than she had before Luca brought out the drugs. “Carlos found her.” Carlos appeared as if my voice summoned him, slinking down onto the mattresses and snaking his arms around Luca’s waist. He tongued Luca’s ear. “I thought she would be a cute little pet for the two of us.” Luca shook him off. “We’re not an animal shelter.” Kendra hugged the pizza box closer to her chest. I couldn’t help smiling at her. The Molly was already kicking in. Carlos stroked the back of Luca’s neck. “No skin off my nose, baby. I just want to have fun.” Luca turned into Carlos’s warmth and nuzzled his neck. They kissed, their tongues long, thrashing lizards. Carlos was the only one Luca would fuck. That’s why I made it a point to be his special pet. The Molly began boiling inside me. I slid off the mattresses, watching Carlos and Luca twisting and moaning. I wished somebody would turn on some music. Now would be a good time to dance. I rolled from side to side, imagining it. The woman in the larder whimpered softly. I covered my ears. If she started screaming, it would really bring me down. Kendra crept toward me, still holding the pizza box. My hands slid off my ears. My hair felt so soft under my fingers, like silk. Like nice things. I wished I could take Molly every second of every day. I wished life was just Molly, Molly, and sleep. If Luca didn’t give me drugs, life wouldn’t be worth living. I smiled up at Kendra. I was crying a little, but it felt kind of good until a tear ran cold into my ear. Kendra looked from the men on the mattresses to me and back again. They had forgotten about us, all of them, Carlos and Luca caught up in the heat of their sex, Alicia and Gabriel in their own work. I heard the ripping of duct tape, and the granny’s whimpering stopped. No screams yet. Kendra patted my arm. “Are you okay?” she whispered. She had a nice voice. It reminded me of a girl I knew back at Rowe Junior High, a girl who had helped me on a math quiz once. Little sparkles danced around her head. I couldn’t help giggling. The basement stank of piss and old meat and no one had ever painted it, and the two lightbulbs set in the ceiling were white-blue fluorescent. There wasn’t anything pretty in the whole space, and yet, here was Kendra, sparkling like a star or a field full of fireflies. I wanted to hug her, but I knew that was just the drugs. “You should leave me alone,” I warned her. I didn’t want to get too attached, not the way Luca was acting. The door at the top of the stair burst open, hitting the wall and ricocheting. A man laughed, and another shouted something about beer, and I realized Marcie had come home with a train of frat boys. For a moment the smell of beer was stronger than the other stinks, and my mouth watered. Only good thing Gabriel ever did was teach me to drink beer. Gabriel went straight for the sixer that the biggest of the boys held. There were some blood sprinkles on the side of their face, but I don’t think the frat boy noticed. Gabriel grabbed the boy’s crotch and took a bottle of beer. The boy giggled. The sound echoed in my head, light and bubbly, as Gabriel downed the beer in one long, thirsty gulp. I didn’t know how he could be so thirsty when they’d just drained an entire fifty-year-old woman, but when I saw them drink like that I knew shit was about to get real. I reached for Kendra, but the Molly made it too hard to aim or speak or clap my hands over my burning hot ears. With a gasp for air and a happy burp, Gabriel slammed the bottle into the metal pipe of the stair rail. Glass crunched so loud I wanted to scream. The bottle slid through the air in a shining brightness that cut off the frat boy’s scream in a long arc of blood. The room went spinny-spin-spinning, and Kendra screamed, and Carlos pulled away from Luca. A frat boy’s eyes went big as Carlos drove him into the ground with a laugh. Someone ran past me, and flesh went thud-squelch as the shovel from the larder connected with a boy’s head. Alicia reared back and swung again, light and Molly-colors blurring her outline. Sparkles flashed off the shovel. Light traced everything, sparkling, flashing, dancing light, and I crawled away from the blood and the screams, my body going hotter, then colder, and I buried my icy head in a heap of old blankets, and there was silence. I woke up when Luca ran a razor between my toes and began to lick the blood there. The razor hurt, but his tongue felt nice, slippery and friendly like I imagined the worm from Sesame Street if it passed between your toes on its way to Oscar’s trash can. But then my stomach bounced, queasy and weird, and when he squeezed my foot, his hand was impossibly cold. “You slept through the fun, silly.” I opened and closed my mouth, but it was too dry to make words. Off to my left, the sounds of mouths suckling. I craned my neck so I could see what was happening on the mattress pile. Gabriel and Alicia crouched in the twisted blankets, and I hoped for a second they were leeching one of the college boys, but they were working Kendra’s arms, one apiece, razoring little cuts on the softest places and lapping at them like kittens on their mother. Kendra just lay there, blinking once in a while, trying to fix her soul to the ceiling. I smiled up at Luca. He hadn’t picked her. That meant I needed to be extra-good to him. I looked for words in my dry brain. “Is my blood sweet tonight?” “Always, pet.” “You know I only take the drugs you give me, right, Luca?” I thought my voice sounded real sweet. “I don’t mess with anything that would make me sour for you.” He flicked the tip of my toe. Blood flaked around the lines of his knuckles, crispy and brown. “The fuck you know about blood?” I sat up real fast, checking his eyes for coldness. No one pissed off Luca. “Nothing, Luca. I just thought—” “You don’t think, pet.” I held my breath. Was this the day he stopped liking me? Was this the day he turned off the drugs or stuffed me in the larder like the others? His blue eye-slits softened. “Of course you didn’t mean anything by what you said.” I shook my head. In the larder, someone groaned, and the shovel thudded. The groan became a shriek. Marcie and Carlos were juicing their catch. “I just want to make you happy,” I whispered. I trembled all over, and I hoped like hell he thought it was just the Molly coming out of my system. He stroked my cheek. The powerful stink of sex and meat came off it, the smell of the basement, the smell of my mother’s shabby old trailer, the smell of night. “You always do your best to amuse me.” His smile reappeared. He was so much handsomer when he smiled. I could almost forget what he was when he looked like that. “In fact, I have a fun idea.” His arm shot out, fast as a pit bull biting a baby, and closed on Gabriel’s arm. “Give me the girl.” Gabriel slapped Luca’s hand. “You made me cut myself, bitch!” “Shut up,” Luca ordered. Alicia slid across the mattress, wrapping her arms around Gabriel’s middle. She kissed their cheek. “It’s all right, sweetie,” she crooned. A little of Kendra’s blood dripped out the corner of her mouth. “Brother hasn’t had a turn with our new little toy.” Luca’s hand tangled in Kendra’s silky black hair. “Soft.” He began to wind it around his fist, pulling her closer to him, inch by inch. Her body slid to the edge of the mattress, her neck stretched awkwardly. I couldn’t escape those brown eyes, fixed on my own, the corners filling with brightness. I sat up so I didn’t have to see the tears running into her eyebrows. Luca loosened his grip on her hair and eased her arm out from under her. He held out his free hand. “Razor.” Alicia dropped a blade into his palm. He dug the corner of it deep into Kendra’s wrist. Blood welled up, thick and dark. He smiled at me. “Drink up, pet. Be one of us.” I looked at her wrist, at the blood—a lot of it—running down her arm. I had seen so much blood since Gabriel brought to me the basement. The smell bothered me no more than the hot stink of a fast food restaurant. I had seen every last one of the gang lick or suck or smear my own blood out of every limb and orifice I possessed. But this was different, somehow. She had patted my arm after Luca kicked me. She had used that very hand, I realized. I recognized the stains on her fingers. “Drink,” Luca ordered. There was ice in his voice. I lowered my head. It’s just pizza sauce, I told myself. And if you eat your pizza, then you can stay out of the larder. I put my lips over the hot mouth he had carved in her wrist, and the blood pressed up against my tongue, thicker than whole milk. I gagged on it, but I knew how to make myself swallow. I looked up at him, feeling Kendra’s blood running out the corners of my smile. “Did I do good?” And then the blood hit my stomach, cold water on a hot skillet. My stomach bucked and heaved. I twisted sideways and spewed red and pizza. “Don’t you waste that!” He slapped the back of my head so hard, I fell into the dirt beside my mess. The stink of it made me gag and choke. I pulled my knees up, clutching them over my burning belly. My head hurt, too. Luca stood up and kicked my ribs. “Clean it up.” I crawled toward the bathroom, not trusting my legs. There was a pile of tee shirts with Greek letters on them, and I scooped up the puke as best I could. The utility sink was filled with clumps and bones, so it wasn’t easy. Carlos stepped out of the larder and watched me work, shaking his head. “I’m sorry,” I whispered. I tried to catch Alicia’s eye, but she wouldn’t look at me. “I’m so sorry.” Luca shoved Kendra’s body off the bed. She made a tiny sound when she fell, but she didn’t move. Blood still oozed out of the cut on her wrist. “Go ahead and get rid of the trash.” “You mean, like, cut her up? Like the ones in the larder?” He grunted. “Just take her out to the street. And take your shit, too.” I stared at him. “What?” He jerked his head toward the stairs. “Go on now. Get.” Gabriel made to grab Luca’s arm, but the look in Luca’s eyes stopped them. “You’re just letting her go? What if she tells someone about us?” “Who’d listen to her?” I sank down onto the floor beside Kendra’s body. “Don’t make me go. Please.” Luca’s lip curled. “Get out.” My tears turned his face into crystal, all sparkle and shine, like vampires were supposed to be in those books Alicia had given me when I first woke up in the basement. “Wasn’t I a good girl? Didn’t I do everything you asked?” I stretched my hands out to him. Begging, though I knew he hated begging. Weeping, though I knew he hated weeping. “Please, Luca! Who will take care of me out there?” “Get out!” The tendons stuck out from his neck, and his face had gone red. My legs shook. He could kill me, I realized. I wasn’t his pet any longer, and any second, he could kill me like he’d killed my mama and her pimp. “I’m going,” I said. I took hold of Kendra’s ankles. Her tiny little flip-flops had fallen off sometime. Someone would find them, twisted up in the blankets or under a shirt, and they’d throw them away just like us. I hadn’t seen Marcie come out of the larder, but she stood by the stairs, her face splattered and streaked with gore. She folded her bloody arms across her chest and watched me struggle up the stairs. “Lock up after her,” Luca ordered. “I don’t want her coming back.” Kendra’s head bump-thump-bumped up the stairs, one slow thud after another. I couldn’t tell if she was alive or dead, but I hoped she was dead. I stared down at her pointed, freckled face and tried to imagine her soul flying up the stairs and then out the basement door as I opened it. On the other side of the door, the side I hadn’t seen since the day Gabriel carried me into the basement, I stepped on linoleum tile. Normal linoleum like you’d see in any regular house, beige but clean. I couldn’t imagine any of them mopping it. The light over the stove lit up the dark kitchen as I dragged Kendra’s body, not so heavy, but getting heavier every step, past the fridge and down the hall, Marcie following slowly behind and sometimes stepping on Kendra’s hair. I paused, breathing hard. I wasn’t used to carrying heavy things, and my body felt weird from all the Molly. I took a long breath of air. It was warmer than it was in the basement. “Keep moving,” Marcie said, her voice low and rumbling. “I ain’t got all day.” I tried not to groan as I grabbed Kendra’s ankles again and started dragging. Her tank top was riding up in the back, exposing her pale brown belly. It matched the carpet in the front room, even down to the gray undertones. I wished I could stop and fix her shirt, but Marcie growled at me when I slowed. She even growled as I fumbled with the deadbolt on the front door. Cheerful lace curtains let in the streetlight, sick yellow all over my tee shirt. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d had seen light that wasn’t fluorescent blue. A year? Two years? “Go on,” Marcie urged. I opened the door, and even my fear of Marcie wouldn’t let me keep moving. I stood on the porch for a second. Had anyone missed me in the time I’d been gone? Did Mrs. Hargrave, the homeroom teacher, ever wonder had happened to the girl who sat in the back and picked at her nails? Did anyone remember me, anyone at all? My legs began to shake again. I looked into the darkness of the house, where Marcie’s face made a vague pale spot. “Don’t make me go out there, Marcie. Please. I’ll do anything.” She shoved Kendra’s shoulder with her boot. “Get moving, or I’ll bleed the both of you.” “I can’t be alone, Marcie! Don’t make me go!” She reached for Kendra’s hands and, with a grunt, hoisted up the girl’s torso. “I’ll give you anything you want. My blood, my pussy, my nail polish—anything, Marcie.” I pawed at her arms. “Please! I’ll be good, just don’t make me be alone!” Marcie dropped Kendra onto the front stoop beside me. It wasn’t a big stoop, just a square of concrete and a green welcome mat with the word “HOME” half-covered by Kendra. “Get lost,” Marcie hissed, and slammed the door. I threw myself at the wood, scratching and pounding. “Please! Let me back in! Please!” The deadbolt gave a final thud. I crumpled to the ground. The rough fiber of the welcome mat bit into my knees. “Please,” I whispered. “Please.” Beside me, Kendra groaned. I whipped around, staring at that stupid little face. She was so cute, so small, so perfect. Even Carlos had thought she’d make a better pet than me. “Fuck you,” I hissed. “I hate you. I hate you! You and your poison blood, you ruined everything. I’m alone out here because of you!” She groaned again and pulled her knees up to her chest. I scrubbed tears off my cheeks with my palms. “I hate you,” I whispered. Then I slapped the wood of the door. “I hate you all!” I shrieked. No one answered. The house sat there, quiet and ordinary, its secrets sealed away from me and the yellow streetlight. I wrapped my arms around my belly and crumpled forward. I had been a pet. I had been someone. I had had enough to eat and drink and someone to buy or steal me nail polish, and now I was out here. Alone. A-fucking-lone. The tears came harder. I was alone. So alone. And now I wasn’t even in the blue-fluorescent light of the basement, but back in the cold and the dark, and there weren’t even any drugs to take me out of the darker cold that was my head. Kendra gasped. I turned around, not sure if I’d really heard it. Sparkles outlined her head, like the lights I’d seen on Molly, only I was pretty sure I wasn’t high. “It’s raining,” Kendra whispered. “We’re outside and it’s raining!” She pulled herself up using my shirt until she managed to grab onto my shoulders. “You saved me.” I just looked at her. The sparkle on her hair was just rain. The drizzle had turned her bangs to frizz. She burrowed into my neck, her tears wetter than the rain. “Thank you,” she said. “Thank you, thank you.” It took me a second to remember how to hug her back. It felt weird to touch someone so warm and soft. “Thank you,” she repeated, over and over. “Thank you.” My legs wobbled as I got us to our feet. Neither one of us had shoes. My feet were still bleeding from the cuts between my toes. If I had been a vampire, I could have smelled it, but instead I only smelled the faint stink of garbage and car exhaust. I wondered if I would miss the smell of blood, or if, like Popsicles, the memory of it would turn my stomach. Broken glass winked in the yellow streetlight. I’d forgotten about dangers like glass down in the basement. I wondered what else I’d forgotten down there. “You’re shaking,” Kendra said. “Are you all right?” “Who’s going to take care of us,” I whispered. “Who’s going to make sure we’re okay?” She didn’t think for even a second. “You can do it. You saved me. You can take care of both of us.” I looked down at her, at her enormous, trusting brown eyes, at her pointed chin. So cute. And I was, too. We were two cute girls who knew how to act cuter. I reached for her hand. “As long as we stick together, I’m sure we’ll find somebody.” The post PseudoPod 730: The Smell of Night in the Basement appeared first on PseudoPod.
22 minutes | 3 months ago
PseudoPod 729: What We Talk About When We Talk About Cooking Country & The Halloween Parade
Authors : Kitty Sarkozy, Jessica Ann York, Jamie Grimes and Alasdair Stuart Narrators : Kaz, Jennie Agerton, Alex Hofelich and Alasdair Stuart Host : Alasdair Stuart Audio Producer : Marty Perrett Discuss on Forums PseudoPod 729: What We Talk About When We Talk About Cooking Country & The Halloween Parade is a PseudoPod original. Please head over to the Escape Artists Patreon for information about the parade clues. Audio notes: Spoiler Inside SelectShow Theme music for show: https://freemusicarchive.org/music/Doctor_Turtle/none_given_2414 Commercial track: https://freemusicarchive.org/music/Loyalty_Freak_Music/WITCHY_BATTY_SPOOKY_HALLOWEEN_IN_SEPTEMBER_/Monster_Parade What We Talk About When We Talk About Cooking Country by Jamie Grimes, Kitty Sarkozy, and Jessica Ann York Transcript of What’s on the Table, Episode 92: What We Talk About When We Talk About Cooking Country BERTRAND COBB, host: This is What’s on the Table. I’m Bertrand Cobb. If you’re like me, the past few months have challenged your culinary capabilities. Anyone who’s listened to this show is aware that I’ve dabbled in the sweet science of baking. I have produced a number of edible breadbox basics. This includes current instagram favorites sourdough and banana bread. However, I’m no maître pâtissier. But our guest today, Pricilla van Pelt, is a master baker. She recently published her first book at the tender age of seventy-five, collecting recipes and personal stories from her award-winning blog. It’s called What I’m Talking About When I Talk About Cooking Country. Her book has generated a lot of buzz on pinterest and instagram, as well as the discussion boards of reddit since publication. I’m still working from my home studio and connected with Ms. van Pelt via Zoom from her grandson’s home in Buford, Georgia. Pricilla van Pelt, can you tell us What’s on the Table? PRICILLA VAN PELT: Well, Mister Cobb, there’s a pretty little centerpiece my great-grandbabies put together, wildflowers mostly, and this computer. We don’t need much more than that. COBB: [chuckles] I find your cookbook fascinating. Every recipe has a story or warm anecdote that is as much an experience as the food itself. PRICILLA: I used to love reading memoirs, seeing how famous folks lived their lives. Now I’m not saying I’ve done much of anything except this book, but if you can see my cooking through my eyes, through my experiences, maybe you’ll find it all as special as I do. COBB: I want to begin with a reading from the book, if you’re up for it. PRICILLA: Oh, I’d love to. COBB: It’s almost Halloween. How about the introduction to the pumpkin cookies? PRICILLA: Of course. “It’s these cookies I’m always coming back to this time of year. The pumpkin, the spice, the little tea frosting. I started making them back in, oh it had to have been ’89. I was trying to figure out what to do now that the kids were finally all off on their own. My quilting guild tried to put it in my head that I was good enough to start up a bakery on my own. I’d sometimes whip something up and take it down to Leonard’s showroom. His flooring customers and employees loved them, but who doesn’t enjoy free cookies? I didn’t think they’d be worth selling. Thought I’d be a fool to waste time on anything like that. But I did like baking and my friends loved eating. I started working on my recipes and testing them out on the ladies at our weekly meetings.” COBB: Your quilt guild. You dedicated this book to them. PRICILLA: If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be where I am today. They helped with the design elements, helped me get it published. COBB: It’s a beautifully designed book. That gold inlay on the cover— PRICILLA: We call that a triquestra. Some nowadays call it a trinity knot, I’ve heard. It’s got another name, real old, but I’m liable to sprain my tongue if I try to pronounce that. COBB: Well, we wouldn’t want that. I’d like to talk a little bit more about the importance of family to your work. You talk at length about your struggles raising your children and about your adventures in grandmotherhood, but there’s only a few mentions of your husband. PRICILLA: Yes, raising three kids might not have been so hard if he’d been around more. But he’s been gone these thirty years, no need to go digging him up now. COBB: You think he’s dead? PRICILLA: He has been to me and the kids for a long time. Ha, he was an odd one, that Leonard. COBB: What do you mean? PRICILLA: All those ridiculous flooring commercials he made. This one time, the local station slipped up and interrupted the inauguration of President Bush, the read-my-lips one, not his boy. Blasted things kept showing up every now and again for months after he was gone. I’d call up the station and ask them to stop. COBB: And did they? PRICILLA: Some did. Some didn’t — but they swore up and down they did. Anyways, let’s talk about these yummy cookies. COBB: Of course. It’s just…I was wondering: Why, after all this time—thirty years, you said—why would anyone bring up your husband’s disappearance? Why now? PRICILLA: Bless your heart. You ain’t never spent time outside the city, now have you? Small towns, you see, they can be like a…like a crab bucket. You understand what I’m saying, not liking people getting big ideas? COBB: [hesitantly] I think I do. PRICILLA: Come on now. Can’t a woman accomplish anything without her husband being centered in the conversation? COBB: But don’t you want to talk about it all? Maybe set the record straight? He was last seen on April 30, 1989. PRICILLA: [sighs] Oh, I remember that day clear as this one. Leonard had been especially stern with me that night. He didn’t like all the time I was spending with the girls. COBB: Your quilt guild? He didn’t like them? PRICILLA: No he did not. Can we—? COBB: Why’s that? PRICILLA: [pause] I’d come home from our meeting full of light and life, sugar. Happy, wasn’t no way for a wife to be. Anyway, that night he was drinking. Boy was he drinking. Now, he wasn’t never right, a bunch more quirks than most folks, but if he had a few too many drinks… COBB: Wow, I hadn’t read anything about that side of Leonard in my research. If you need a moment to— PRICILLA: Now, you gone and got me started, pumpkin, might as well see it to the end. I had been out in the little garden I was putting in with the girls, they had come over to help me with the tilling and planting. We weren’t doing nothing wrong. A little wine, a little dancing. We put together a few words and we blessed the earth. They left right after he got home, but I stayed out, doing a few things. He must have started drinking right away, because not an hour later he comes storming out yelling nonsense, already boiled over. Saying something about feminism or witchcraft or lesbians. Told me he didn’t like what them girls were turning me into. Oh, I sassed him hard. He didn’t often lay a hand to me, hadn’t in years and years, but that night he did, struck me once. He used some off-color words, the least repugnant of which was devil. Made some accusations. I told him he could go right to hell and get my room ready. Come morning, he was gone. COBB: Why keep this to yourself all this time? I’m sure your detractors would ease up, if only— PRICILLA: Oh it ain’t never been a secret, I told the police when they were looking for him. I’m sure my statement is written somewhere. But the kind of people that would come after an old lady? I wasn’t going to explain myself to them. COBB: Leonard was never found? PRICILLA: The whole town did a search, found neither hide nor hair of him. I told the cops about his lady friends. One of the girls from the quilt guild said she had seen him. Another came forward about them having an encounter, before she knew he was married. Of course I forgave her, it’s the right thing to do. Those girls are the world to me, I couldn’t have done any of this without them. COBB: We’re coming into our last minute, and I’d like to apologize that we haven’t really talked about your book. PRICILLA: How courteous. COBB: [nervous] We could close out with a little more from the book? PRICILLA: Yes, dear. We should keep on the pumpkin cookies, ‘tis the season. “The first pumpkin of the season was plump, orange as a perfect sunset, sitting right where the land had been blessed. I was so overcome by its perfection that I got down on my knees, cut that sucker open right there in the garden. It took a little effort. You know the way the skin resists a knife point, until it sinks in? It was a nice feeling. I scooped out the guts with my bare hands and sliced me off a piece of that flesh. I took a little nibble. I ain’t gonna lie. It was sweeter than sin. That’s how I got the idea for my cookies, I wanted all those sensual exotic flavors, from that chai one of the girls had made, last we met. Cinnamon, cloves, ginger and the big secret is a little black pepper, for luck”. [Dialogue is abruptly cut off and interrupted with a commercial.] “Do you want a monster of a deal on your next flooring installation? Well I’m King Leonard and I’m murdering the competition with killer savings during our Halloween sale! I’m absolutely buried in stock! And I gotta get it outta here before my wife sends me to an early grave! Discount hardwoods! Tile! Vinyl! Shag carpeting! All offers considered!” The post PseudoPod 729: What We Talk About When We Talk About Cooking Country & The Halloween Parade appeared first on PseudoPod.
22 minutes | 3 months ago
PseudoPod 728: Teeth Long and Sharp as Blades
Author : A.C. Wise Narrator : Tonia Ransom Host : Alasdair Stuart Audio Producer : Marty Perrett Discuss on Forums PseudoPod 728: Teeth Long and Sharp as Blades is a PseudoPod original. Teeth Long and Sharp as Blades by A.C. Wise Have you ever thought about how fairy tale heroines are like final girls? We survive poisoning, curses, imprisonment, mothers who want to cut our hearts out and hold them in their hands. But we survive, and our survival is an object lesson: act this way, and you’ll be all right. Be pure of heart. Be kind to strangers. Don’t go into the woods at night. It was supposed to be a joke. A stupid prank. A sorority dare. They were never going to let me into their sisterhood, I know that now, but back then I was naive. I was trusting. I walked into the park at the far edge of campus. I stood at the line where impenetrable shadow met safe halogen glow, facing the trees bordering the neat lawns, dense enough to be called a wood. And I didn’t question why I was the only freshman out there, shivering in the t-shirt my mother bought me from the campus store the day we toured the school. The red shirt read Get Jacked over a white line drawing of a lumberjack, our team mascot. Its hem barely met the waist of the stupid booty shorts Angelica insisted I wear. All I had to do was stand there, dressed like an idiot, and sing the school fight song all the way through, including the verses no one remembers anymore, then I could come back inside. It was supposed to be safe. I wasn’t even out there alone, though I didn’t know that at the time. Brian, a pledge from a sibling frat, was hiding in the bushes. He was supposed to jump out wearing a wolf mask and scare me. Instead, he ended up holding my guts in with his bare hands, sobbing as he called for an ambulance. He rode to the hospital with me, holding my hand, but when they wheeled me inside, he stayed in the parking lot. Eventually, he called an Uber back to campus. I heard all this second-hand. After that night, I never saw Brian again. Do you want to see my scars? Everyone always does. Even if they don’t intend to ask, they eventually get that look in their eye. Maybe a corner of their mouth twitches. They look away, and phrase it like an afterthought. Oh, by the way . . . And then their eyes go wide. It’s always worse or better than they expected. Maybe some people think they’ll actually see my intestines, still hanging out like ropes after all these years. Whatever they expect, I’m never it. Then they stare and stare and stare, forgetting I’m even here. Us final girls, us heroines, our trauma is a lesson, we survive over and over again for your entertainment, to teach you how to live. See? When I lift my shirt up, you can trace the marks all the way from my hip to my underarm. There are other scars too, but you don’t get to see those. Of course, it isn’t the same shirt. Don’t be absurd. I bought a new one. I stood on the edge of the dark and faced the trees. There wasn’t anything to see except the shagginess of them, the way they were indistinct in the purple-brown muddy night. I never did get around to singing. I opened my mouth. I took a step, just one toe closer to the shadows, my heel still on the path, never fully leaving the safety of the light. Why? Did I hear something stir in the dark, a vast impossible mystery ready to open itself up and swallow me whole? Or was I drunk and just trying to keep my balance? It doesn’t matter. This is my story, but when you hear it, I am irrelevant, a moral in the shape of a girl, an object to be acted upon. The darkness surged. I don’t remember it making a sound. I did, but it wasn’t a scream, only the thud of my head hitting the ground. I couldn’t see. I couldn’t breathe. Weight crushed me, massive paws on my shoulders pinned me down. Then tearing, tearing, tearing and pieces of me on the outside of my body that should have stayed inside. The heat and the smell. Do you know there hasn’t been a reported wolf sighting in this area of the country in almost fifty years? We hunted them near to extinction. Drove them out of their natural habitats, killed off their food sources and left them to starve. Contrary to popular belief, it’s very rare for a wolf to attack a human being. Why would they? Too much trouble. They prefer easier prey. The small. The weak. But in a pinch, they’ll eat anything. All starving things will, given time. There are places where wolves live off our garbage like carrion birds. Like coyotes. But don’t let them hear you call them that. I don’t know if that’s true, but it sounds true, doesn’t it? A good story is more important than reality most of the time. Wolves don’t like to come close to the city. They don’t like the light, the scents, the noise. I should have been safe. I wasn’t even alone. But we’re never as safe as we think we ought to be. Wolves don’t come this close to the city, but knives don’t leave scars like these. So what were you, then? I’ve wondered for years. Were you sick, hungry, afraid? Were you born one way, but transformed into something else? Did I look like a deer to you? Were you ever a wolf at all? There is an impossible space between truths. That is where this story exists. That is where creatures such as us belong. Of course they searched the woods, carrying rifles, both the tranquilizing and the regular kind. For weeks, the edge of campus sprouted white tents filled with coffee and radio equipment and folding chairs. There were sawhorse barriers and fluttering yellow police tape. They never found anything. Or not what they were looking for, at least. I was in the hospital, so I missed the whole thing. I heard they turned up a vagrant, living in a shelter made from an old mattress and a tarp, the kind you can buy at any home supply store. They may have run a picture of him in the paper, though I can’t imagine why. Regardless, I see him very clearly in my mind—dirty brown hair and beard, matted and unkempt. But not just brown, also a little bit red and a little bit blond. He’s very skinny. White skin. His ribs show. His eyes are green, but flecked with odd droplets of rust. He doesn’t own a shirt. His pants are rough fabric, held up by a rope at his waist. His feet are bare, almost black, with moons of dirt under yellowed nails. He looks a lot like you. Wolves aren’t monsters. They are forces of nature. They don’t have a choice in what they do, but if they did, what do you think they would choose? Is there a wolf out there who would rather open a vegetarian restaurant, or take up knitting dressed in your grandmother’s clothes? I never wanted to be in a fairy tale. There was a poster by the elevators in my dorm, advertising an art show. A flying saucer hovers above a lake; a girl stands on the shore, holding a bouquet of daisies. In my mind, she is about to propose. That’s what I want to be—a girl who marries a spaceship and runs away. But instead, I’m the girl who survived. And I always will be. When they let me out of the hospital, I expected to dream of wolves. I never did. I got special dispensation to skip exams, start over again fresh next semester. I moved from my dorm to an apartment off-campus, sponsored by a generous alum concerned for my mental wellbeing. It felt like hush money—Has hazing on campuses gone too far? —but I took it anyway. And I decided not to pledge to a sorority after all. Instead of wolves, I dreamt about men with hungry eyes. Men standing between trees and watching me. Hot breath smelling of cheap whiskey instead of red meat. Do you believe in fairy tale as allegory? Do you believe in the capacity of the mind to protect itself with story, no matter how fantastical and far-fetched the tale may seem? But as I said, knives don’t leave marks like these. My grandmother sends me money every year on my birthday. After I got out of the hospital, since I didn’t need to worry about rent, I used the money to go on eBay and buy a fur coat. The seller claimed it was genuine wolf fur. I had no reason to doubt him. Did you know I used to be a vegetarian? The coat arrived in late spring, with the temperature already pushing eighty-five degrees. It took both hands to lift it out of its box. The seller had wrapped it in tissue paper smelling faintly of lilacs, as if I’d bought it at an old fashioned department store. It felt sleek in my arms, powerful. I imagined running for hours and never getting tired, jaws that could snap a man’s leg in half, straight through flesh to bone. It made me hungry. I put it on and opened the closet door. I stepped inside and sat with my back against the wall. I pulled the closet door closed. In the dark, I could barely see the full-length mirror hanging on the door. Looking at my reflection through the fringe of hanging clothes was like looking at myself through a screen of trees. I imagined being swallowed, held close in the belly of the beast whose skin I wore. I put my fingers in my mouth and chewed until I tasted blood. I screamed. A raw, full-throated howl. After that, I didn’t dream about men in the trees anymore. Would you like to know how this story ends? You’ve noticed the camera, yes? This is the part where I reclaim the tale, reinsert myself, remind you that I have—after all—been here all along. We’re going to make a film, you and I. You’re going to be the star. Did you know there’s a $50,000 fine for killing a protected species? I’m still a vegetarian—do you believe that? Cruelty to animals is wrong; they can’t help what they are. But a girl’s got to do what a girl’s got to do if she wants to do more than survive. Do you believe in the property of transference? The ability of one thing to stand in for another, like a coin for a living sacrifice, or a lamb for a son? Do you believe the wine in the cup turns into blood the moment it touches faithful lips? I’m going to tell you a story. Once upon a time, a girl walked into the woods. A wolf ate her, but somehow she emerged. When the girl grew up, she walked back into the woods, but this time she carried a spear she’d carved herself out of blackest wood, polished to a shine. The wolf had come back to haunt the woods, and she knew if she didn’t kill it, it would devour more girls like her. So she strode forth and confronted the wolf, even though it stood taller than her. Even though its eyes were blood and its breath a gale. Each of its teeth was a blade longer than her arm. But she showed no fear, driving her spear straight into the wolf’s brain through its lower jaw. Then she took its snow-white fur for a cloak and declared the forest safe again. This story is also true. A girl walked into the woods and was devoured by a wolf, but she survived. By the time she grew up, there were no more wolves in the forest; people said there never had been. But the girl had bad dreams and she knew the world wasn’t safe; it would make her into something she wasn’t if she let it. So she snuck into a rehab center for injured animals. She stole a wolf so sickly and drugged, it didn’t put up a fight. It was starving, so hollow and light she could carry it with no trouble at all. She brought the wolf to the basement of her apartment building. In the back corner, under a burned-out light bulb, she tied the wolf to an old army cot. The wolf was afraid. The wolf begged the girl for water and food. Couldn’t she see he was sick and had nothing to do with her scars? She said no, she couldn’t see that anymore. All she could see was a wolf with winter-white skin and red eyes, teeth long and sharp as blades, taller than her, with breath smelling of blood. She took a knife that wasn’t longer than her arm. In fact, it was very small. She cut him slowly. She started at his sternum and worked her way down to his groin. It took a long time. His skin didn’t part like a zipper. She had to fight, and it made her arm sore. The smell was very bad, and the predator screamed the whole time and told her she was wrong, wrong, wrong; he wasn’t a wolf at all. When I cut you open, will I wear your skin and make the woods safe again? Or will I find only blood and guts and organs inside, and no one there to hold them in while an ambulance comes? You say there have been no wolves in this part of the country for over fifty years. I say knives don’t leave wounds like these. Which story would you rather believe? The world doesn’t always behave sensibly. Sometimes there’s a mystery standing between the trees, waiting to swallow us whole. I’m turning the camera on now. I would say I’m sorry, but that would defeat the point. This is how we step out of fairy tales. This is how we stop being final girls. We become monsters of our own. Not object lessons. Not dealers of justice and vengeance. Merely alive. Still here. And cruel. The post PseudoPod 728: Teeth Long and Sharp as Blades appeared first on PseudoPod.
38 minutes | 3 months ago
PseudoPod 727: The Uninvited Grave
Author : Jeffrey Thomas Narrator : Scott Campbell Host : Alasdair Stuart Audio Producer : Marty Perrett Discuss on Forums “The Uninvited Grave” originally appeared in the braided story collection The Unnamed Country published by Word Horde in 2019. Roadkill by Mercedes Lackey Heavenly Creatures trailer The Uninvited Grave by Jeffrey Thomas “Fuck my mother!” Depo Ep cried out when he saw the new tombstone in the precise center of his field of corn seedlings. By tradition, the dead were to be buried in the town or city in which they had been born, not necessarily that in which they had lived—even if they had never lived long in their place of birth, and even if their place of birth was quite distant at the time of their death. Therefore, the families of the deceased often did not own a cemetery plot or any piece of property where they could inter a coffin and raise a monument. It was thus a custom for relatives to purchase a plot of land from someone, perhaps an old friend or casual contact but usually a perfect stranger, in the city of the deceased’s birth. This might be a corner of their front yard, the periphery of a field if they owned one, but it might also be a spot within their very house (in the case of an above-ground sarcophagus). The conditions of such a contract were that the relatives could look in on their loved one’s resting place at any time without formal request. The contract did allow, though, because of their bulk, for an above-ground tomb to be respectfully utilized by the homeowners, who might very well use it as a coffee table, place quilts on its flat upper surface so that they might sit upon it to watch TV (unless they placed the TV on it), or even stretch out upon those quilts at night to use it as a bed. But it was also an old tradition that, because of the often crippling expense of purchasing a grave plot and of possibly having to travel from afar to inter the deceased, that a family might simply claim a spot of someone else’s property without paying for it. This was permissible so long as it was done when the landowner was not present at the time of the burial or tomb erection, so that no violence would be instigated by either forceful relatives or landowners defending their property. So, a gravestone or above-ground tomb resting in one’s front yard or at the periphery of a field might spring up unexpectedly, and custom was—as reinforced by law—that the property owner could not in any way deface the burial site or deny the family the right to visit it. Such an unexpected tomb might even show up in the center of one’s living room, if one forgot to lock their door when they went to work. The granite headstone on Depo Ep’s property, however, had not been politely tucked away at the border of his corn field, but planted dead smack in its center. “Fuck my mother!” he cried out again, even louder this time. He looked around wildly, as if he might find the culprits still lurking nearby, catching their breath after their labors. After all, he hadn’t really been gone that long. He’d ridden into town on his motorbike for a haircut, where his unruly graying eyebrows had also been trimmed and the wax excavated from his ears, all three aspects of maintenance long overdue. And what greater pleasure was there than to have a pretty young thing dig the wax out of one’s ears with her delicate little probes, leaning her breasts against his arm? From there he had run a few errands and ended his excursion with a trip to the little graveyard in the neighborhood where his wife had grown up, to leave a monthly offering at her gravestone: a pair of perfectly spherical green melons (representing the two of them, still symbolically united) and burning some incense sticks he slotted into the little holes in the base of her lichen-splotched headstone. He’d hated the stubby little bitch. When she was harboring bitterness, which was always, she would purposely probe too far when digging the wax out of his ears, turning the sensuous to the torturous. But, tradition was tradition. The gods were always watching. A man who didn’t honor his dead wife might very well, upon his own death, find himself called to the court of the Ten Demon Lords of Hell. Depo didn’t spy anyone lingering nearby to gauge his reaction, so he turned his attention back to the invading gravestone and read its new, clean-edged inscription aloud, lighting a 777 brand cigarette with hands trembling with rage as he did so. “Ecco Bin Bin,” he said in a mocking, disgusted tone, as if this were some absurd foreign name instead of one quite common in his country. “‘Beloved husband, revered father, reverent servant of the gods, faithful citizen of his nation, productive worker, lucky gambler.’ Pah! Would that I could engrave more words here, you pompous old goat’s scrotum! And that is what I would engrave: ‘Pompous old goat’s scrotum’!” But Depo knew all too well he couldn’t so much as spit on this tombstone, lest some police officer witness his offense. Or worse…the gods. So he left his field (ah, but it was all right to deface his field, wasn’t it?) and stormed back to his little farmhouse with its darkly mildew-stained cement walls, and rusted corrugated metal roof, and the misleading address B-2 stenciled over the door by his deceased wife—who had been more faithful to her precious TV than to the gods—growling curses all the way. He felt violated, and yet he felt impotent to address that violation. Tradition was a kind of glue that held a country and its people together, but it could also be a glue to stick one’s hands together helplessly. Still—except when it came to his domineering wife, may the Ten Lords of Hell feast on her heart through eternity—Depo Ep had never been a man to countenance helplessness. Depo collected long stalks that grew from the swampy troughs at the sides of the dirt road running past the front of his property, but only those stalks that had gone yellow and hard from baking in the sun, and dragged bundles of them to the workshop at the rear of his humble little house. There, he separated the stalks into smaller bundles and with wire bound them into the limbs and long torsos of scarecrows. He had fashioned scarecrows in the past, to frighten birds from his corn field, before he had simply taken to shooting at them with an old bolt-action army carbine instead (oh, by the gods, if shooting were only an option now!), but these new scarecrows would be of another order altogether. He tore to shreds some articles of his wife’s clothing he’d uncovered, faded from rough laundering, and wound the strips around the scarecrows’ arms in dangling tatters that would stir in the breeze. And upon the fronts of their roughly ball-like woven heads, he painted features. Fearsome, grimacing features with bulging eyes and wolfish tongues, his own tongue pushing past his teeth as he carefully rendered these details in black paint. These monstrous visages were the most important component of all. His labors took him through the night, but he was driven first by his rage and then gradually by a gratified sense of purpose that grew into exhilaration, a bright aggressive pleasure. The sun set, and rose again to find him in his field, where he had dragged his brood of scarecrows, each one a head taller than himself. There, he propped the scarecrows in a ring around the tombstone of Ecco Bin Bin, facing inward as if to pay the dead man tribute. But the congregation of scarecrows were effigies of the Ten Demon Lords of Hell. Standing back to admire the finished composition like a true artist, clapping his callused palms together, Depo Ep let out a little snort of satisfaction. Then, he turned back to his house to allow himself, finally, a well-earned sleep. Though he was utterly exhausted and basting in sweat, never had his work in this field felt so rewarding. He awoke with a start, his heart nearly firing itself through his chest like a cannonball. Disoriented, he thought for a moment that he was standing in a courtroom surrounded by ten towering figures with hideous faces. The Demon Lords were chanting. The solemn chants were his sentence, condemning him to an eternity of torture. Hideous old crones, leaning their withered breasts against his arms, would insert metal probes into his ears and tease out his brains bit by bit, only for the tissue to regenerate to be teased out again… But as his heartbeat came more under control, he realized that the chanting was continuing even with his dream having dissipated. And the chanting was coming from somewhere nearby, just outside his house. Depo threw himself from his mattress laid on the cement floor and went to a small barred window without any glass, drawing back a lace curtain stained yellow from decades of 777 smoke. Night had descended again, weighing black upon his field, but at its center—its exact center—burned a circle of torches. Incense smoke wafted on the warm night breeze. So did the chanting. Before bursting outside, Depo Ep reached for the old bolt-action carbine leaning in a corner of his kitchen, but with an effort of will he withdrew his hand. He tramped through his field unmindful of the delicate green seedlings he crushed beneath his sandals, not even bothering to walk in the rows between. At the center of his field he found three mourners. One was a stubby old woman who, gods forbid, might have been a fleshly apparition of his own wife. But he knew whose wife she really was. Ecco Bin Bin’s widow was accompanied by two adult sons, short and stout like overgrown babies, their heads still shaven bald from their father’s funeral rites back in their own town, wherever that might be. Joss sticks jutted from the holes drilled into the base of their father’s clean new monument. Four bright green melons rested at the headstone’s base, as well. The three of them at least had had the decency or respect—but of course, only out of fear—not to knock down the ten leering scarecrows. They knew the precepts of tradition as well as he. But they had stabbed a torch into the ground in front of each scarecrow to ward off their powers, and they had placed offerings at the feet of each of the Ten Demon Lords to placate them. Ten bottles of 777 brand whiskey, cartons of cigarettes, cellophane-wrapped packages of dried squid treats, and wads of colorful faux money. Everyone knew demons loved such things. Demons, like police officials, were easily bought. Depo choked on an aborted exclamation. He was going to bellow at this trio to get off his land, and take their litter with them (though on second thought, it would be preferable if they left those ten bottles of 777 whiskey), but he knew that it was within the family’s rights to pay tribute to their fallen loved one whenever they saw fit. They ignored him utterly as if he were an invisible spirit, knowing that he knew these rules. There was nothing really he could say. He could not even disparage the man’s memory in front of them. All he could utter, as a hiss under his breath, was, “Fuck my mother!” But wait until they returned to their own town or city, as sooner or later they must. He would erect effigies of the entire Ten Legions of the Demon Lords’ infernal army if he must, to surround and glare at the presumptuous tombstone of Ecco Bin Bin. Even if he had to sacrifice every inch of his field to do so. With a renewed sense of purpose energizing him—or at least allowing him the saving of face—Depo Ep turned on his heel and marched back to his house, slamming its blistered old door behind him. Depo Ep couldn’t return to sleep that night, and paced his small house like a caged animal, wracking his brains for a means of exacting revenge against Ecco Bin Bin and his family in a way that wouldn’t overtly violate the codes of the law, and of the gods. He thought of drilling holes in the earth over Ecco Bin Bin’s grave, and pouring in termites to eat through his coffin, no doubt a cheap wooden one, not nearly as pretentious and presumptuous as his thick granite headstone. Then, with the termites having paved the way, Depo would pour in a horde of hungry grubs or maggots or—yes!—the corpse-eating beetles of the type that the monks of the Va Tung Va temple bred and used to strip their dead brothers down to their bare bones, so that their denuded heads could be added to the walls of skulls that lined the catacombs beneath their temple. Depo didn’t care if the termites or larvae or ravenous beetles went on to eat every last seedling in his field. His pride couldn’t be bought for a corn field that spanned the entire surface of the world. But then he considered that even if the beetles made their way into the coffin and chewed Ecco Bin Bin to the bones—so what? His family wouldn’t see him that way, wouldn’t even know it (however much Depo enjoyed the image of swarming blue-black beetles covering every inch of that goat scrotum’s body, feasting on his face, his eyes). And wouldn’t his family expect, anyway, that insects would one day whittle their loved one down to his inner architecture? Depo’s method would only hasten that outcome. Again: so what? No…this idea wouldn’t do. Anyway, the gods might still view this as a direct attack against the deceased. Better to keep his revenge focused on proximity to the gravestone, rather than any kind of action directly against it or the arrogant old gambler planted beneath it, like a giant seed from which no profit would ever sprout. And how much corn would that tombstone displace, in the future? How much lighter would Depo’s pockets be for that loss, as the years went on and on and that shiny gravestone became spotted with lichen and spattered with bird shit? Depo Ep shouted curses as he paced, just thinking of Ecco Bin Bin down there grinning with his eyes closed in serene satisfaction. The thief! He might as well have wads of Depo’s future earnings clutched in his gnarled fingers, right now. Depo considered that he could dump a huge pile of manure right next to the grave. Or better yet, he himself could shit in a bucket and dump that in front of the grave every day. Not touching the plot or its grave marker, oh no, not a single brown dot on that lovely grainy stone, and Depo could always defend himself by saying that he liked to produce his own fertilizer. He had always been frugal! But even this idea didn’t seem sufficient. Maybe it just wasn’t…creative enough. To properly answer this outrage called for the strategy of a master general, the brushstrokes of a brilliant artist. He returned to his idea of an army of scarecrows (let them put a bottle of 777 whiskey at the feet of a hundred soldiers!), but that idea was a bit…exhausting, now that he revisited it. Yet thoughts of demons led to thoughts of ghosts, and thoughts of ghosts reminded him of his dear nephew Kwen when he was only a child of seven. His brother’s stepson Kwen was one of the few members of his family he had ever really loved; only a demon wouldn’t have loved that child’s sad eyes and sweet smile, his respectful and gentle ways. And—truth be told, if only to himself—what man with blood in his veins wouldn’t have been heartsick in love with Kwen when she had changed herself into a woman, her eyes still sad and smile still sweet (or was it the other way around)? In any case, one night a bullying schoolmate, perhaps responding to Kwen’s femininity, had placed a ghost melon on the window sill of Kwen’s bedroom while he slept. Kwen awoke to this frightful vision in a panic. For days afterward he refused to sleep in his own room, and as an adult woman she had once confided to her Uncle Depo that she still had the occasional nightmare about the ghost melon on her window sill. (Depo had found out about the story from his brother, also a vengeful sort, who had enlisted Depo’s aid in passing a dozen large but harmless snakes through the bullying schoolmate’s own bedroom window while he slept.) A ghost melon…of course. No sane fruit seller, whether tending a market stall or peddling their wares from a much-laden bicycle or motorbike, would attempt to sell a ghost melon, though they were said to be as edible as green melons. But Depo knew just where to find one. Not all that far from his property was a boggy area, once a rice paddy, where there grew in profusion tall stalks like those from which he had fashioned the Ten Demon Lords of Hell. In this marshy stretch, visible from the narrow dirt road, were scattered ghost melons…seeming to bob in the shallow water like the tops of the heads of a dozen drowned men. And so, with the pink of dawn spreading, charged with another burst of inspiration, Depo Ep set out again on his dusty old motorbike. But first, walking his bike toward the road, he glanced back toward his field, where a mist lay heavily like a cloud that had descended wearily from the sky. Because his was a newly-planted crop of corn, on the tail of the last harvested crop, the only things in the field that poked up from the blanket of fog were the dark hump of the tombstone and the circle of silhouetted scarecrows. No sign of the bereaved, though; they’d even removed their ring of tall torches. Depo was both relieved and disappointed to see them gone. So now they wouldn’t see the ghost melon, after all? Or were they crouched in the bushes at the edge of the field, waiting to spring forth at the slightest offense against their loved one, as had seemingly been the case before? If they were indeed gone, back to their home, so be it. He’d put a new ghost melon in his yard, at the foot of the grave plot, each time the last one rotted, from now until eternity if he had to, until Ecco Bin Bin’s family returned to pay their respects. When he’d arrived at the bog, Depo rested his sandals on the seat of his motorbike, rolled up the legs of his trousers, then waded into the dark water. Mud and probably the things that lived in mud oozed between his toes, but he ignored this as he reached the first melon, tethered like a buoy by its vine underwater. He cut the vine free with his knife, washed the melon off in the water, then held it up at face level for inspection. Ah! It was perfectly spherical, like the green melons he had left at his wife’s tomb, but its smooth skin was a pale grayish-blue. Tucking this fine specimen under his arm like a severed head, he turned toward his bike leaning at the edge of the road. But it was not back toward his home that he steered. Oh no, not yet. First, another visit to the little neighborhood graveyard where his wife was ensconced. Depo Ep sat cross-legged in the matted grass beside his wife’s grave plot, upon which he had set down the ghost melon as if it were an offering. But it was not an offering. It was a temporary vessel. When ghost melons moldered, their smooth bluish skins became mottled with gray and black patches. In these patterns of decay, words were sometimes discerned. The word might be nonsensical or cryptic, though it could be something significant like a person’s name. Depo had a neighbor who swore he had once seen a ghost melon bearing the words, “Death! Death! Bloody Death!” He had asked Depo how someone could dismiss something that extensive as merely a trick of the eye. (Though his neighbor had been drunk at the time he related the story, and had most likely been drunk when he came upon that particularly wordy ghost melon.) Often it wasn’t words that the rot formed, but faces. Usually these were vague like faces drawn by children, open to interpretation, though many people claimed to have witnessed the face of a furious demon…or the face of the ghost that resided for a time in the melon. A ghost, because it was believed that if a person were to place a blue melon upon a grave, the hungry soul would be lured forth to feast on the succulent fruit and become trapped inside its skin. Only when the fruit rotted away would the spirit be freed to return to its resting place. That was why his beloved nephew Kwen had so feared the ghost melon he had seen in his window, looking in at him like a skull without features. Because, even though it had not yet become splotchy and thus bore no ghastly countenance, it was always feared that an egg-like ghost melon carried an angry spirit inside it. “I know you hated me, you old bitch,” Depo spoke to the gravestone beside him, “as much as I hated you. Ours was an arranged marriage and I know you never stopped pining for that rascal guitar-player Zwoon. But if you ever loved your little home, where you watched your stupid soap operas and talked all day on the phone to your bitch mother and your bitch sister and your bitch sister-in-laws, instead of fucking me and giving me a few sons, then you need to help me now. It’s too late to protect our home from these parasites, but we can strike back in vengeance. Do you hear me? Come eat now, you fat old sow. Come eat the sweet thing I brought for you.” Three days passed without the family showing up in his field again; at least, not that Depo witnessed, and he made sure to stick close to home, peeking out his windows often. Closer inspections of the grave site proved that no new joss sticks had been burned, no new green melons added to replace the four that were now rotting, caved in on themselves like battered skulls and attracting hordes of flies. His own single ghost melon, a few discreet inches away from the foot of the fresh dirt plot, had also begun its process of decay. Gray-black blotches had appeared here and there on its skin, which was beginning to lose its glossy tautness. It was possible the last few days of heavy rain had discouraged the family from revisiting the grave, though they might still be visiting some old friends or relatives in town, but it was much more likely they had returned to their own town by now. “That’s fine,” Depo Ep said to Ecco Bin Bin. “I’ll keep bringing new melons when this one has decayed. I’ll grow them in my field instead of corn if I have to, to keep myself supplied with them. I like that—yes! I’ll flood this field and grow ghost melons! I don’t care if my neighbors don’t like it, if the police come here to chastise me. I’ll do it, I tell you! One day your family will see a ghost melon waiting here, with my wife’s horrid soul bottled in one after another, and they’ll be terrified that the ghost inside will escape from her shell to sink down there to keep you company. Believe me, I’d be terrified too, if I were you, if my wife crawled down there for a visit.” Depo laughed happily as he strutted back toward his house. There was no denying that this challenge had given spark to his life. It was a sport, a game. In fact, he’d even go so far as to admit he hadn’t felt this alive in a long time. On the fourth day since having placed the ghost melon at Ecco Bin Bin’s feet, Depo still found no new incense sticks or green melons to replace those turned to muck. There was one very striking development, though. It should not have shocked Depo Ep, after the stories he had heard since his childhood, but nevertheless he was quite shaken when he knelt down to inspect the withering surface of his ghost melon, and upon its rind—facing Ecco Bin Bin’s tombstone—discovered a remarkable, unmistakable representation of his deceased wife’s face, rendered in inky blotches of black and gray. She looked so filled with fury he had at first mistaken her face for that of a demon—just like when she’d been alive. After a few moments of stunned terror, Depo actually laughed with delight, and exclaimed, “Good job, bitch! Glare at him! Make that old goat shiver in his box with no escape from your ugly face! The gods know I suffered that fate for too long a time, myself.” His wife seemed to be glaring at him, though, the longer he studied the ghost melon. So, feeling uneasy again, Depo rose and retreated to the shelter of his home. “No,” Depo Ep moaned in his sleep. “Nooo…” They stood in a ring around him, looming a head taller than he. Depo wheeled around desperately, at the exact center of that circle, with no avenue of escape. The baleful red eyes of the Ten Demon Lords of Hell blazed with harsh judgment, as if shooting fiery rays into his very core. The demons were oblivious to the field of dancing orange flames in which they stood, but those flames were cooking Depo in his own skin. Hotter every second…hotter… He jolted awake. Smelled the smoke flowing in through his windows. Heard the crackling of the flames outside. Felt the intense heat against his skin. Depo leapt from his mattress and scrambled to the nearest window. “Fuck my mother!” he cried out in horror. His field was a sea of lapping flame. He saw that all but two of the ten scarecrows had already fallen and been consumed, but he failed to recognize the pole-like remnants of several tall torches. To his mind, the family of Ecco Bin Bin—still in the vicinity all this time, after all—had set his field on fire purposely, but it had in fact been an accident. One of the new torches they had erected as protection against the ghost glowering from the blue melon had accidentally tilted during the night, and set the nearest scarecrow alight. From there, the flames had spread. The family had already left well before then, expecting the torches to burn themselves out harmlessly after a few hours. Depo bolted from the window to the door, but found the flames had spread to such an extent that they completely surrounded his tiny house. He darted from window to window, choking as more and more black smoke poured into those windows. At last, knowing he was hopelessly surrounded, Depo sat down at his little kitchen table and lit himself a 777 cigarette defiantly. “You were the one really behind this, weren’t you?” he coughed, as if talking to someone in the empty chair across from him. “You think you’re in heaven now, listening to your old boyfriend strum his cheap guitar? Pah!” He took another drag from his cigarette. “See you in Hell, bitch!” Fen Pwee wagged his head in disbelief. How had they managed this outrage? (Whoever they had been.) He had only been away in the city—delivering a load of bricks to a work site in his battered old truck—for a few hours. But here it was, as if it had appeared by an act of black magic, nonetheless: a brand new, sharp-edged granite gravestone standing at the head of a fresh dirt plot, right in the middle of his front yard. He turned slowly, as if dazed by a blow, to stare at the road, as though he might actually find the culprits standing there grinning maliciously, waiting for him to discover their surprise. But of course there was no one. With anger finally flooding into him, rousing him from his stupor, Fen stepped closer to scrutinize the words engraved into the headstone (unbeknownst by him, that stone purchased by the deceased’s beloved niece, Kwen). Fen read aloud: “‘Depo Ep. Devoted husband, favorite uncle, faithful servant of the gods, honorable citizen of his nation, productive farmer.’” Shaking his head again, Fen Pwee added his own verbal addendum to the epitaph: “Fuck my mother!” The post PseudoPod 727: The Uninvited Grave appeared first on PseudoPod.
29 minutes | 3 months ago
PseudoPod 726: The Sneakaboo
Author : John Waterfall Narrator : Kaz Host : Kat Day Audio Producer : Marty Perrett Artist : Deena Salzman Discuss on Forums PseudoPod 726: The Sneakaboo is a PseudoPod original. The Sneakaboo by John Waterfall I bought the walrus at the carnival off I-95. The one that sets up in the lot next to the Carvel every August. And I say bought because I couldn’t knock over a physically impossible pyramid of soup cans. My wife whispered “pussy” into my ear and squeezed my butt a bit too hard for it to be funny. So while she and Jackson were spinning in the tea cups, I doubled back and slipped the carnie a twenty. Then I went cock-walking back with a big grin on my face, windmilling my throwing arm, a spaniel-sized walrus tucked behind my back, Windex blue with a pink Santa hat stitched on crooked. For Jackson it was love at first sight. I said I won it, and to this day Meg doesn’t know any different. It remains one of the great secrets of our marriage. I’m proud that she thinks I earned it. But I bought it. And I wish to God that I hadn’t. Because for a summer it ran our life, and so did Jackson, who was an imperious little shit around that time. And I know this is something all parents say. But for us it was true. It really was. Because when we didn’t do what Jackson wanted, Sneakaboo got upset. And that’s why my nose looks the way it does. That and the frying pan. Sneakaboo got its name on the drive back. Jackson was refusing to get into his car seat, wanting to ride the walrus like a horse instead. I said it was okay. Because forty-five minutes of screaming is too much. And it was okay, ’til I got pulled over by a state trooper and lost five hundred dollars and a point off my license. While I was busy learning about parental neglect, Meghan did her best to distract Jackson, using the walrus for a game of peak-a-boo, only Jackson regurgitated it as, “Sneakaboo! Sneakaboo.” Which, I’ll admit, was a little heart-melting. At the time. That was one of the last good days. With a difficult child, you have to count those. To hold on, because you have to remind yourself that it’s worth it. Because when you’re shit deep, the shit’s the only reality, and those memories are the proof that it was better and can be again. That you do, in fact, love your children. Look, I’ll admit, I wasn’t always the best dad. I got angry. Meg’s always been the one to remind me that you can’t yell at a child the same way you yell at an adult. Or a teenager. You’re really not supposed to yell at anyone. But Jackson would have these meltdowns, over nothing, just nothing, and I’d blow my lid. I’d call him spoiled. Tell him how different it was for me. All that. I still don’t know if we ever did the right things with him. Maybe he needed a little fear of God. Maybe things would have been different. I don’t know. I don’t think Meg does either, though she’ll never admit it. Little Hurricane Jackson is what we called him back then. Our little hurricane Jackson. That night, Jackson insisted on having Sneakaboo in his crib. Which scared me, because I’d heard stuff about kids smothering themselves. But he screamed. And Meg did that thing that made her right about everything and me wrong about everything and we all went to bed angry and nobody had sex. Then it got weird. The next morning, Meg came in to wake me with a look on her face. She sat on the corner of the bed and stared into space and put a finger to her lower lip and pulled it a little. For a second I thought that I was right, finally right, that our son had died in his crib, face down in a carnival prize. Then I heard Jackson squeal in his room down the hallway, and Meghan looked at me like she was going to say something, but didn’t. Sneakaboo had doubled in size overnight, fluff bursting from its ruptured seams in white gouts, the protruding cotton bulbous and gnarled like fungal growths. The face is what got me. It had torn free from the rest of the fabric, a button-eyed blue circle floating on an extended neck protrusion of coarse cotton. Its mouth a little curlicue of black stitches, drooping from a spade of a nose that fused into tusked jowls. The whole countenance screwed together into a pink-cheeked squint-smile. I’m telling you, it was Michael Myers-esque. Real dead-eyed. Jackson wouldn’t let me take it from him, wouldn’t let me look at it. And when I tried, he screamed, and I swear the thing shuddered. Meg thought it was bedbugs, that the carnie had given it to me as payback for winning at his rigged game, which of course I hadn’t. Or for being upper middle class. I didn’t say anything to dissuade her. Anything seemed better than telling her that it had moved. I floated going back and pressing the carnie, and she pounced on the idea. So I took a few hours while Meg went about distracting Sneakaboo away from Jackson, a tactic that involved pints of ice cream. I want to add here that it’s not like we spoiled the kid because we were lazy. This was just how he was. He got angry, he got scared, and it drove him nuts. Just nuts. And after hours and days we had to give in. There was no choice. No improving him. We checked. We did tests. All I know is that he wasn’t happy, and that he hated it as much as we did. So I go to the carnival and, what do you know? Thing’s gone. Packed up and disappeared. Just an empty lot of bad grass, tinged and bald where the big machines had rubbed it away. I smoked a cigarette without fear of getting caught and counted the weeds, the little drug bags. I walked to the exact spot where I thought the stall was and just stood there, waiting for revelation. It was a nice day, and the cars on the highway whistled past, and all together it was a pleasant break from being a dad. There’s something profound in standing where a carnival once was, a mystery to how all that neon bustle went poof. I went to the Carvel and got some strawberry ice cream. When I got back, Jackson was watching cartoons in an ice cream coma. Courage the Cowardly Dog, I think. Meg was poring over Sneakaboo with a magnifying glass, bug hunting. She’d over-invested at this point. As scary as the whole thing got, parts of it excited her. She loves this kind of stuff. Horror movie stuff. I wrapped my arms around her neck and smelled her head and we watched the rest of the show in silence. “No bugs.” She said. “No carnie.” I said. By bedtime we’d decided that we were crazy, that the walrus was poorly made, that we just hadn’t noticed that it was as big as a Saint Bernard between the tantrum and the highway stop. We tucked Jackson in alongside his monstrosity and watched him sleep. I was happy that I had given him something that he was in love with. It was not an uncommon occurrence for Jackson to wake us up in the middle of the night with outrageous demands. That night was no different, only he didn’t come alone. As Jackson toddled into our room like he owned the place, Sneakaboo came loping in after him. It had grown again, sprouted huge muscular arms of cotton that it used to knuckle itself forward, dragging its walrus bulk behind it. Meg screamed and scrambled towards the headboard, pulling her legs to her chest in a frenzy of sheets. “Holy shit.” I think I said. I got up, knocked over my bedside lamp and stood there with my fists up. “Gwilled cheese.” Jackson squeaked, bouncing his hands on the mattress in his little boy way, not reading the room at all. Sneakaboo slouched behind him, vibrating, head weaving on that too-long neck, shredded blue face impassive and wrong, tusks undulating like roach antennae. That was the worst part. The part that still gets me nauseous. Those fucking tusks. “Gwilled cheese.” Jackson said again, then again and again. “Gwilled cheese! Gwilled cheese! Gwilled cheese!” “Holy shit.” I probably reiterated. Inside I was going, No. No. No. No. No. This is not a thing that is happening. At this point, having not gotten what he wanted, Jackson decided that it was time for all hell to break loose. He started screaming. Not crying, screaming. Angry and wild. Meghan started moaning and I looked at her and she was just tearing the sheets, trying to pull them into her body. I looked back towards Jackson and the Sneakaboo was pulling itself towards me, loping on those massive fists. I was still going, No. No. No. This is very obviously not a real thing that’s happening. It’s got a stupid Santa hat. Look at that stupid Santa hat. It’s the summer. Then it reached me, put me in a headlock and threw me to the shag carpet. Never let anyone tell you shag carpet is a bad thing. Shag carpet might have saved my life that night. Because that monster started pummeling me, and wouldn’t you know it? Those fluffy fists felt like rocks. I crawled away from the beating, bloody and bruised, and somehow, I don’t remember how, made my son a fucking grilled cheese sandwich. How do I describe this next part? Our son came into possession of a magical creature that amplified his tantrums into moments of real physical danger. So yeah, it sucked. And neither of us knew what to do. And the things we did try resulted in beatings, in being flung across the room into walls. Resulted in concussions and bone bruises and staggered visits to our doctor, who gave us each a very impassioned speech about domestic violence. So for survival’s sake we maintained a hands-off policy at first. We watched our son play with his monster from doorways, from the top of the stairs; quietly swooping in if he couldn’t open a peanut butter jar. Much to our surprise, Jackson could largely exist without our involvement, living off toilet water and boxes of cereal. But he still needed us. He still fell flat on his face and cried at the injustice of it all. Still needed a bedtime story to fall asleep. The only thing the Sneakaboo had for him then was rage, thrashing blindly as Jackson howled in misery. Our son still loved us. Still wanted us. He just had the ability to overpower us and didn’t understand what that meant. So we got back in there. We had to. And that meant getting beaten up whenever Jackson’s mood swung during a diaper change. The worst part was when Jackson forced us to play with Sneakaboo, to willingly wrestle with the horrifying creature and act like we were in on the joke and not shitting ourselves stupid. I cried the first few times. I hadn’t cried since I was a kid, not even when my dad died, but I did then, and not like a man, not like a grown-up. I cried like a child. I whimpered. I wet myself. I mean, I thought it was going to kill me. Every time Sneakaboo put me in a headlock at the behest of our little boy emperor, I waited to hear the sound of my neck snapping. And then, slobbering and humiliated, I had to watch my wife do the same. I don’t know how we made it. I guess we got used to it, but those first few times, smashed into that penny-store monster’s brittle fur . . . the feeling, the horror. The way it moved, always dead-eyed, animal and inanimate at the same time, those tusks always going, flickering, the one part of the creature that didn’t feel like it came from Jackson but from somewhere else, beyond the pale. Look, back then, and I don’t mean to brag, I mean why would I, but back then, I did my husbandly duty. I took every beating I could to spare Meg. Volunteered myself for every play session. And when I couldn’t go on, when I was about to tag-out and slit my wrists, she did the same for me. When you have a kid, your affection, your bone loyalty latches on to them, and as a result you lose a little of what you had for your spouse. That’s what had happened with me and Meg when Jackson was born. We both loved him so, so much. But when Sneakaboo came on the scene that loyalty flipped back. Meg and I were always in the trenches together, always consoling each other, and it was like when we were in college. Our bodies told each other what we were giving to our marriage every night, as long as we both weren’t too exhausted. It felt safe, being so clearly on the same team, even if we were never too far from our son’s silent enforcer. And as we got used to the pain it started getting funny. I mean, it was just, so, so ridiculous. It was a walrus in a Santa hat. If there’s one thing life has taught me, it is that there is not a single horrifying thing that cannot be made less so by the addition of a Santa hat. What did horrify me was that I started to hate Jackson. I started to hate my son. After a few weeks things started moving towards normalization, or rather to a form of it. It was all a matter of anticipating Jackson’s needs and preparing to distract him when his mood went sour. I quit my job. We slept in shifts so we could have the grilled cheese ready before he started wondering where it was. I ordered a mini fridge to keep ice cream in his bedroom and hid cookies in strategic locations. The point was to always have a plan. And it worked. Most of the time. But it wasn’t ideal. He still was making all the decisions. Plus he was getting obese, which the pediatrician would give us the eyebrows for if we ever made it out of the house again. But the system gave us time to make plans. To think about how to get rid of Sneakaboo. We thought about calling the cops, but were afraid they might take Jackson away from us. Meghan was worried that the government would experiment on him, or put him on television. Which sounds like something the government might do, I guess. We considered our options, covered the fridge with the numbers of priests and parapsychologists. But in our hearts we knew, or maybe hoped, that there were no answers outside our four walls. It was just our son that was happening to us, the unknowable piece of him just outside our reach, the hurricane. And if we could find the eye of it, we could will him towards normalcy. Of course there was also the issue of being seen, of being judged, of being liable, the implication that our son’s mental control over a violent and impossible monstrosity might somehow reflect poorly on our parenting. What became apparent was that our time was not infinite. We made calls, cancelled nana’s visit, told friends that Jackson was suffering from something deeply contagious, but sooner or later, the time shut away would become weird. Then it was only a matter of when, not if, child services showed up at our door. In America, you can’t simply disappear your kids, not after the grid knows about them. In the end the thing that made sense was fire. To simply wait till Jackson was passed out and torch the fucking thing. Unfortunately Jackson usually slept in Sneakaboo’s arms, huddled into that strange mass of blue and white froth like a chimp baby, which made me jealous to no end. But it didn’t always happen that way: every now and then the kid passed out in a pile of empty ice cream pints like an adorable little drunk, leaving the Sneakaboo inert and vulnerable, except for those tusks. Fire poker. Rag. Chemical log. One bucket of gasoline. A place where I couldn’t burn the house to cinders. The silver buckle belt my father gave me on my twenty-first birthday. One black burlap sack. That’s what it took. I’ll never forgive myself for the last one. I know Jackson doesn’t, even if he can’t remember. Speaking of, black burlap is hard to find and hard to buy without oozing guilt. Got it at the hardware store across the highway from the Carvel. How do you want to see the world? It was a Sunday night, August seventeenth. I made sure I was drunk enough to feel mean, sober enough to act. Meghan was upstairs crying herself to sleep. Sneakaboo, that big blue fuck, had torn out a piece of her scalp while she was reading a book to Jackson and stretched his patience too far. So yeah, I felt mean. I felt good and mean. I lured Jackson to the basement with ice cream sandwiches, doing my best to stay out of sight. One sandwich at the top of the stairs, one at the bottom. One down the hall. One at the top of the basement stairs. If this plan seems strange or odd, I was pretty much half-insane. I was shirtless. I thought I was Rambo. But it worked. I watched from the shadows as my son followed my trail, the Sneakaboo hulking behind him, a cheap monstrosity loping through the columns of moonlight that barreled through the windows, my little black-haired boy leading him along, ragged and long-haired like one of those kids raised by wolves. When I was sure he was following, I crept ahead to the basement. We had an old CRT TV down there hooked up to a VCR. I pressed play on Fievel Goes West, Jackson’s favorite, and turned the sound up. I’ve yet to meet the toddler that won’t cross deserts to follow the sounds of a distant cartoon. I hid out of sight, flattened between the wall and the open basement door, my fire poker held tight, wrapped to the point with gasoline-soaked rags and chemical-log skin, primed to become a flaming spear at the stroke of a match. The bucket of gasoline lay at my feet. The idea was to set the creature on fire and then keep it burning, but to do that, I needed Jackson out of the way. From the top of the stairs my son called to me, “Ada? Addy?” His versions of dad and daddy. “Down here, buddy.” I called to him, my heart trying to punch its way into my throat. “Come watch cartoons with Daddy.” He squealed and started clomping down the stairs, which I realized he shouldn’t be doing by himself. I checked the impulse to run to him, reminded myself that he wasn’t alone, that he had his own profane interloper that was stealing all my dad moments. I lit the poker. And God forgive me for this next part, when Jackson emerged, happy and messy with ice cream plastered to his face, I stepped out from behind, covered his head with my burlap bag, tied the belt around his neck and flung him away. Again, I am so, so sorry for this last part. Definitely a low parenting moment for me. Things happened quickly after that. Jackson screamed, screeched really, burning out his last good breath on a whine pitchy enough to make my eyes swim. And Sneakaboo went berserk, started smashing and twirling without a target, blinded without Jackson being able to identify the source of his unhappiness. I went for my gasoline bucket and caught a flipper-fist that broke my jaw and sent a tooth skittering. That was almost the end right there. I dropped to the ground, half my face wrapped towards the back of my head. Through bloody fingers I saw my boy, tugging at his neck, clawing, and that gave me all the wind I needed. I struggled up, bucket in hand, turned to the rampaging walrus thing, the creature eerily soundless in its fury, and doused it in gasoline. The Sneakaboo didn’t so much as flinch: no recognition, no animal reaction to being soaked in the pungent grease. I balked for a second, one final second, picturing my son burning alive, then I stabbed my burning poker into Sneakaboo’s fluffy guts and set that fucker to fry. It went up in an eye-blink, the gasoline a spreading blue ripple, riding a whooshing sigh that tingled my spine. There was no noise, no noise in all that chaos, Sneakaboo thrashing like a silent movie Frankenstein as it twirled into ashes, launching droplets of fire in all directions, almost beautiful. Jackson choked out a groan like a squashed toad and I remembered what I had done. He was on the ground contorting his little body, bucking his spine in a way no child should, blood trickling down his shirt front. I grabbed him bodily around the waist and hauled him up the stairs, straight into Meg, ragged and unkempt in her flannel pajamas. She looked at my bloodied face, to our son trussed up and bagged like a shot deer, back to me. Then she hit me in the head with a frying pan. I’m not going to ask for sympathy. I believe in what I did, although perhaps not in the way I did it. Frying pans are just what happens when you make a unilateral parenting decision. The pain was bad. Struggling into consciousness to see my son foaming at the mouth in his mother’s arms was worse. I watched him spit out the tip of his tongue into her lap. Just the very tip. He lived. He’s not rolling his R’s or anything, but he lived. Meg gathered him up in her arms and took him out into the night, to what I later learned was the hospital. For a while I thought I was going to die, slumped there at the top of the basement stairs, all beat the fuck up, choking on burning stuffed animal and gasoline. But I didn’t die. The fire burned itself out, suffocated in the concrete tomb that was our basement. The cops didn’t come. Neither did the fire department. If they had, I don’t think we’d have survived. As a family, I mean. I don’t know why. The whole thing sure felt loud, felt out of hand in the way that attracts neighbors. But asides from my son’s single scream, I suppose it was all silent; just a little darkness in the fringes of suburbia, out where there’s still a little woods to get lost in. The ambulance didn’t come either, so I can assume that around that time Meg didn’t care if I lived or died. I don’t blame her, but I can’t say I don’t hold it against her. I spent two days drinking water from the toilet, eating from the torn bags of cereal Jackson had left around the house. Like father, like son. Eventually I got to my feet and went to the basement. The floor where Sneakaboo had burned was scorched deep black, beautiful brushstrokes of char, the cork tiling whirled and swirled, melted and reformed into alien ripples. It looked like a spiral galaxy of black and brown, twisting towards an ever dark center of carbon, and a bubblegum pink, lightly singed Santa hat. I put the hat on. It smelled like caramel. I put it on and went to the CRT (which, remarkably, was in perfect working order) and watched Fievel Goes West in its entirety. Twice. Then I went out and staged a car crash to explain my injuries. When you hold your child, there is not an ounce of your body that does not feel love. Love drawn from your body, milked from your pores. You will tell yourself there is not a thing you would not do, no violent death you would not endure for this child. And all that love you feel, all that honest affection, won’t protect them from the things you will do to them. From the things they will do to themselves. Meg stayed with her mom for two months and didn’t answer my calls. I cleaned the house and waited. Made it so everything was as it was before we went to the carnival, before the carnival went to us. Then she and Jackson came back, and for a while we didn’t talk about it. It took a year for Jackson to feel comfortable with me. For him to trust me to throw him in the air and catch him on the way down. I severed a part of his childhood: not a vital part, but an important one. That kind of violence, it’s a scary part of the world, and it’s something he learned from me. And I pay for it. Whenever I see him, I think about what’s hiding behind his blank stares, what kind of anger is hidden within my son. Is it real? Did I put it there? Or was it there to begin with? Deep down, inside his soul, is something twitching? I imagine the phone call, the news that he’s strangled his girlfriend in a roadside motel. That he’s come into work and shot up the place. That for the last two decades he’s been busy hacking drifters into pieces. I don’t know if other parents feel this way, if we all chronicle our guilt and wait for the day it comes back to slit out throats. Maybe he’s just what he appears to be? A good kid. The post PseudoPod 726: The Sneakaboo appeared first on PseudoPod.
29 minutes | 4 months ago
PseudoPod 725: The Lonesome Place
Author : August Derleth Narrator : Andrew Leman Host : Alex Hofelich Audio Producer : Marty Perrett Discuss on Forums “The Lonesome Place” was first published in Famous Fantastic Mysteries (February 1948) and collected in Lonesome Places (1962). Submitted for the Approval of the Midnight Pals: https://gumroad.com/l/UEPhV The Lonesome Place by August Derleth You who sit in your houses of nights, you who sit in the theatres, you who are gay at dances and parties—all you who are enclosed by four walls—you have no conception of what goes on outside in the dark. In the lonesome places. And there are so many of them, all over—in the country, in the small towns, in the cities. If you were out in the evenings, in the night, you would know about them, you would pass them and wonder, perhaps, and if you were a small boy you might be frightened . . . frightened the way Johnny Newell and I were frightened, the way thousands of small boys from one end of the country to the other are being frightened when they have to go out alone at night, past lonesome places, dark and lightless, sombre and haunted. . . . I want you to understand that if it had not been for the lonesome place at the grain elevator, the place with the big old trees and the sheds up close to the sidewalk, and the piles of lumber—if it had not been for that place Johnny Newell and I would never have been guilty of murder. I say it even if there is nothing the law can do about it. They cannot touch us, but it is true, and I know, and Johnny knows, but we never talk about it, we never say anything; it is just something we keep here, behind our eyes, deep in our thoughts where it is a fact which is lost among thousands of others, but no less there, something we know beyond cavil. It goes back a long way. But as time goes, perhaps it is not long. We were young, we were little boys in a small town. Johnny lived three houses away and across the street from me, and both of us lived in the block west of the grain elevator. We were never afraid to go past the lonesome place together. But we were not often together. Sometimes one of us had to go that way alone, sometimes the other. I went that way most of the time—there was no other, except to go far around, because that was the straight way down town, and I had to walk there, when my father was too tired to go. In the evenings it would happen like this. My mother would discover that she had no sugar or salt or bologna, and she would say, “Steve, you go down town and get it. Your father’s too tired.” I would say, “I don’t wanna.” She would say, “You go.” I would say, “I can go in the morning before school.” She would say, “You go now. I don’t want to hear another word out of you. Here’s the money.” And I would have to go. Going down was never quite so bad, because most of the time there was still some afterglow in the west, and a kind of pale light lay there, a luminousness, like part of the day lingering there, and all around town you could hear the kids hollering in the last hour they had to play, and you felt somehow not alone, you could go down into that dark place under the trees and you would never think of being lonesome. But when you came back—that was different. When you came back the afterglow was gone; if the stars were out, you could never see them for the trees; and though the streetlights were on—the old fashioned lights arched over the cross-roads—not a ray of them penetrated the lonesome place near the elevator. There it was, half a block long, black as black could be, dark as the deepest night, with the shadows of the trees making it a solid place of darkness, with the faint glow of light where a streetlight pooled at the end of the street, far away it seemed, and that other glow behind, where the other corner light lay. And when you came that way you walked slower and slower. Behind you lay the brightly-lit stores; all along the way there had been houses, with lights in the windows and music playing and voices of people sitting to talk on their porches—but up there, ahead of you, there was the lonesome place, with no house nearby, and up beyond it the tall, dark grain elevator, gaunt and forbidding, the lonesome place of trees and sheds and lumber, in which anything might be lurking, anything at all, the lonesome place where you were sure that something haunted the darkness waiting for the moment and the hour and the night when you came through to burst forth from its secret place and leap upon you, tearing you and rending you and doing unmentionable things before it had done with you. That was the lonesome place. By day it was oak and maple trees over a hundred years old, low enough so that you could almost touch the big spreading limbs; it was sheds and lumber piles which were seldom disturbed; it was a sidewalk and long grass, never mowed or kept down until late fall, when somebody burned it off; it was a shady place in the hot summer days where some cool air always lingered. You were never afraid of it by day, but by night it was a different place; for then it was lonesome, away from sight or sound, a place of darkness and strangeness, a place of terror for little boys haunted by a thousand fears. And every night, coming home from town, it happened like this. I would walk slower and slower, the closer I got to the lonesome place. I would think of every way around it. I would keep hoping somebody would come along, so that I could walk with him, Mr. Newell, maybe, or old Mrs. Potter, who lived farther up the street, or Reverend Bislor, who lived at the end of the block beyond the grain elevator. But nobody ever came. At this hour it was too soon after supper for them to go out, or, already out, too soon for them to return. So I walked slower and slower, until I got to the edge of the lonesome place—and then I ran as fast as I could, sometimes with my eyes closed. Oh, I knew what was there, all right. I knew there was something in that dark, lonesome place. Perhaps it was the bogey-man. Sometimes my grandmother spoke of him, of how he waited in dark places for bad boys and girls. Perhaps it was an ogre. I knew about ogres in the books of fairy tales. Perhaps it was something else, something worse. I ran. I ran hard. Every blade of grass, every leaf, every twig that touched me was its hand reaching for me. The sound of my footsteps slapping the sidewalk were its steps pursuing. The hard breathing which was my own became its breathing in its frenetic struggle to reach me, to rend and tear me, to imbue my soul with terror. I would burst out of that place like a flurry of wind, fly past the gaunt elevator, and not pause until I was safe in the yellow glow of the familiar streetlight. And then, in a few steps, I was home. And mother would say, “For the Lord’s sake, have you been running on a hot night like this?” I would say, “I hurried.” “You didn’t have to hurry that much. I don’t need it till breakfast time.” And I would say, “I could-a got it in the morning. I could-a run down before breakfast. Next time, that’s what I’m gonna do.” Nobody would pay any attention. Some nights Johnny had to go down town, too. Things then weren’t the way they are today, when every woman makes a ritual of afternoon shopping and seldom forgets anything; in those days, they didn’t go down town so often, and when they did, they had such lists they usually forgot something. And after Johnny and I had been through the lonesome place on the same night, we compared notes next day. “Did you see anything?” he would ask. “No, but I heard it,” I would say. “I felt it,” he would whisper tensely. “It’s got big, flat clawed feet. You know what’s the ugliest feet around?” “Sure, one of those stinking yellow softshell turtles.” “It’s got feet like that. Oh, ugly, and soft, and sharp claws! I saw one out of the corner of my eye,” he would say. “Did you see its face?” I would ask. “It ain’t got no face. Cross my heart an’ hope to die, there ain’t no face. That’s worse’n if there was one.” Oh, it was a horrible beast—not an animal, not a man—that lurked in the lonesome place and came forth predatorily at night, waiting there for us to pass. It grew like this, out of our mutual experiences. We discovered that it had scales, and a great long tail, like a dragon. It breathed from somewhere, hot as fire, but it had no face and no mouth in it, just a horrible opening in its throat. It was as big as an elephant, but it did not look like anything so friendly. It belonged there in the lonesome place; it would never go away; that was its home, and it had to wait for its food to come to it—the unwary boys and girls who had to pass through the lonesome place at night. How I tried to keep from going near the lonesome place after dark! “Why can’t Mady go?” I would ask. “Mady’s too little,” mother would answer. “I’m not so big.” “Oh, shush! You’re a big boy now. You’re going to be seven years old. Just think of it.” “I don’t think seven is old,” I would say. I didn’t, either. Seven wasn’t nearly old enough to stand up against what was in the lonesome place. “Your Sears-Roebuck pants are long ones,” she would say. “I don’t care about any old Sears-Roebuck pants. I don’t wanna go.” “I want you to go. You never get up early enough in the morning.” “But I will. I promise I will. I promise, Ma!” I would cry out. “Tomorrow morning it will be a different story. No, you go.” That was the way it went every time. I had to go. And Mady was the only one who guessed. “Fraidycat,” she would whisper. Even she never really knew. She never had to go through the lonesome place after dark. They kept her at home. She never knew how something could lie up in those old trees, lie right along those old limbs across the sidewalk and drop down without a sound, clawing and tearing, something without a face, with ugly clawed feet like a softshell turtle’s, with scales and a tail like a dragon, something as big as a house, all black, like the darkness in that place. But Johnny and I knew. “It almost got me last night,” he would say, his voice low, looking anxiously out of the woodshed where we sat as if it might hear us. “Gee, I’m glad it didn’t,” I would say. “What was it like?” “Big and black. Awful black. I looked around when I was running, and all of a sudden there wasn’t any light way back at the other end. Then I knew it was coming. I ran like everything to get out of there. It was almost on me when I got away. Look there!” And he would show me a rip in his shirt where a claw had come down. “And you?” he would ask excitedly, big-eyed. “What about you?” “It was back behind the lumber piles when I came through,” I said. “I could just feel it waiting. I was running, but it got right up—you look, there’s a pile of lumber tipped over there.” And we would walk down into the lonesome place in midday and look. Sure enough, there would be a pile of lumber tipped over, and we would look to where something had been lying down, the grass all pressed down. Sometimes we would find a handkerchief and wonder whether it had caught somebody; then we would go home and wait to hear if anyone was missing, speculating apprehensively all the way home whether it had got Mady or Christine or Helen, or any one of the girls in our class or Sunday School, or whether maybe it had got Miss Doyle, the young primary grades teacher who had to walk that way sometimes after supper. But no one was ever reported missing, and the mystery grew. Maybe it had got some stranger who happened to be passing by and didn’t know about the Thing that lived there in the lonesome place. We were sure it had got somebody. It scared us, bad, and after something like this I hated all the more to go down town after supper, even for candy or ice-cream. “Some night I won’t come back, you’ll see,” I would say. “Oh, don’t be silly,” my mother would say. “You’ll see. You’ll see. It’ll get me next, you’ll see.” “What’ll get you?” she would ask offhandedly. “Whatever it is out there in the dark,” I would say. “There’s nothing out there but the dark,” she would say. “What about the bogey-man?” I would protest. “They caught him,” she would say. “A long time ago. He’s locked up for good.” But Johnny and I knew better. His parents didn’t know, either. The minute he started to complain, his dad reached for a hickory switch they kept behind the door. He had to go out fast and never mind what was in the lonesome place. What do grown-up people know about the things boys are afraid of? Oh, hickory switches and such like, they know that. But what about what goes on in their minds when they have to come home alone at night through the lonesome places? What do they know about lonesome places where no light from the street-corner ever comes? What do they know about a place and time when a boy is very small and very alone, and the night is as big as the town, and the darkness is the whole world? When grown-ups are big, old people who cannot understand anything, no matter how plain? A boy looks up and out, but he can’t look very far when the trees bend down over and press close, when the sheds rear up along one side and the trees on the other, when the darkness lies like a cloud along the sidewalk and the arc-lights are far, far away. No wonder then that Things grow in the darkness of lonesome places that way it grew in that dark place near the grain elevator. No wonder a boy runs like the wind until his heartbeats sound like a drum and push up to suffocate him. “You’re white as a sheet,” mother would say sometimes. “You’ve been running again.” “Yes,” I would say. “I’ve been running.” But I never said why; I knew they wouldn’t believe me; I knew nothing I could say would convince them about the Thing that lived back there, down the block, down past the grain elevator in that dark, lonesome place. “You don’t have to run,” my father would say. “Take it easy.” “I ran,” I would say. But I wanted the worst way to say I had to run and to tell them why I had to; but I knew they wouldn’t believe me any more than Johnny’s parents believed him when he told them, as he did once. He got a licking with a strap and had to go to bed. I never got licked. I never told them. But now it must be told, now it must be set down. For a long time we forgot about the lonesome place. We grew older and we grew bigger. We went on through school into high school, and somehow we forgot about the Thing in the lonesome place. That place never changed. The trees grew older. Sometimes the lumber piles were bigger or smaller. Once the sheds were painted—red, like blood. Seeing them that way the first time, I remembered. Then I forgot again. We took to playing baseball and basketball and football. We began to swim in the river and to date the girls. We never talked about the Thing in the lonesome place any more, and when we went through there at night it was like something forgotten that lurked back in a corner of the mind. We thought of something we ought to remember, but never could quite remember; that was the way it seemed—like a memory locked away, far away in childhood. We never ran through that place, and sometimes it was even a good place to walk through with a girl, because she always snuggled up close and said how spooky it was there under the overhanging trees. But even then we never lingered there, not exactly lingered; we didn’t run through there, but we walked without faltering or loitering, no matter how pretty a girl she was. The years went past, and we never thought about the lonesome place again. We never thought how there would be other little boys going through it at night, running with fast-beating hearts, breathless with terror, anxious for the safety of the arc-light beyond the margin of the shadow which confined the dweller in that place, the light-fearing creature that haunted the dark, like so many terrors dwelling in similar lonesome places in the cities and small towns and countrysides all over the world, waiting to frighten little boys and girls, waiting to invade them with horror and unshakable fear—waiting for something more. . . . Three nights ago little Bobby Jeffers was killed in the lonesome place. He was all mauled and torn and partly crushed, as if something big had fallen on him. Johnny, who was on the Village Board, went to look at the place, and after he had been there, he telephoned me to go, too, before other people walked there. I went down and saw the marks, too. It was just as the coroner said, only not an “animal of some kind,” as he put it. Something with a dragging tail, with scales, with great clawed feet—and I knew it had no face. I knew, too, that Johnny and I were guilty. We had murdered Bobby Jeffers because the thing that killed him was the thing Johnny and I had created out of our childhood fears and left in that lonesome place to wait for some scared little boy at some minute in some hour during some dark night, a little boy who, like fat Bobby Jeffers, couldn’t run as fast as Johnny and I could run. And the worst is not that there is nothing to do, but that the lonesome place is being changed. The village is cutting down some of the trees now, removing the sheds, and putting up a streetlight in the middle of that place; it will not be dark and lonesome any longer, and the Thing that lives there will have to go somewhere else, where people are unsuspecting, to some other lonesome place in some other small town or city or countryside, where it will wait as it did here, for some frightened little boy or girl to come along, waiting in the dark and the lonesomeness . . . The post PseudoPod 725: The Lonesome Place appeared first on PseudoPod.
26 minutes | 4 months ago
PseudoPod 724: Flash on the Borderlands LIII: What Dreams May Come
Authors : Lyndsie Manusos, Eugenia Triantafyllou and Sarah Read Narrators : Omega Francis, Carly Bergey and Madeline Ruth Somerville Host : Alasdair Stuart Audio Producer : Marty Perrett Discuss on Forums PseudoPod 724: Flash on the Borderlands LIII: What Dreams May Come is a PseudoPod original. “The Funeral Coat” is a PseudoPod original. “Cherry Wood Coffin” first appeared in Apex on May 29, 2018 “Grave Mother” was first published in Vine Leaves Literary Journal and The Best of Vine Leaves Literary Journal, 2014. Hamlet What Dreams May Come-Matheson What Dreams May Come-Movie Alasdair Birthday List (because why not, right?) Story notes: Spoiler Inside SelectShow The Funeral Coat: “I wrote “The Funeral Coat” specifically for Pseudopod’s flash fiction contest. I remember seeing someone tweet about having a specific coat for funerals, which led to me brainstorming various “what if” scenarios. I also was interested in the origins of family traditions. Together, that sparked a whole mythos I wanted to explore. Some stories are grueling to write, like pulling teeth, but this one just bled out onto the page. It was a really fun story to write, and I hope write more set in this world someday.” Cherry Wood Coffin: “This is a story that sprang from a prompt I read in Codex’s Weekend Warrior competition in 2017. Suddenly I was stuck with this very strong image of a talking coffin and wondered what the coffin would say or ask. The answer while pretty obvious didn’t clue me in on what the plot should be about, so I let the idea shimmer for a weekend and speed-wrote the story at the last minute in its complete form.” To sleep, perchance to dream—ay, there’s the rub, for in that sleep of death what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil, must give us pause. The Funeral Coat by Lyndsie Manusos narrated by Carlie Bergey When I was five, my grandmother took me to Macy’s to buy my first funeral coat. It’s tradition in my family to have a separate coat for funerals. Something black, sleek, with sharp edges and elaborate buttons. A coat with high collars, to hide our pulse and the tender arc of throat to shoulder. By the end of the day I was crying, exhausted from trying on dozens of coats. My grandmother had to carry me out of the store with the coat she chose wrapped in tissue paper under her arm. Grandmother bribed me back to calm with a frosted cookie at a nearby bakery. “It’s a sensible matter,” she said while I stuffed myself. “Only wear it to funerals and on holy or sacred ground.” “Why?” I asked. “Different coats for different weather,” she said. “You wouldn’t wear a rain coat in a snowstorm. Don’t wear your funeral coat to a birthday party.” Perfect logic for our family. Later on I discovered not every family took funeral coats so seriously, or even owned funeral coats, for that matter. Nor did people go to as many funerals as we did. My college roommate, Candy, was confused by the idea of a funeral coat, having only been to two or three in her lifetime. She wore loud pastel-colored coats. To her, funerals were an end, not a cycle. Her skin was sun-kissed in a way that made me want to rub my nose from her chin to collar bone. I knew I loved her the moment I met her, from her bright curly hair down to the delectable sweetness of her name. She had a boyfriend, though, so I stuffed myself with cookies every time she went on a date. Candy didn’t know I’d been to fifty-two funerals since my first coat. Grandmother had her own funeral the year before. She’d worn her coat in the casket. I’d made sure–during my turn at the wake–that all her buttons were properly done, all the way up to her chin. Her funeral coat had buttons made of whale bone, carved into tiny ships. She’d been born on a whaling ship some time ago. Her father had carved the buttons himself. “I wish I could meet your father,” I told her when I was in middle school. My grandmother had smiled and said, “You will.” I didn’t realize that roommates share everything, didn’t think Candy would take the funeral coat. It was December, and she’d vomited on her yellow parka at a party over the weekend. On Monday morning, while I was in my anthropology seminar, Candy took my funeral coat and wore it to her chemistry lab. She never made it to class. After getting the call, I fell to my knees in our dorm room, clutching my throat. I imagined her walking under the stone arches of Memorial Union and into the far end of campus. She would’ve looked a vision in my coat, but no doubt she wondered, quite suddenly, why so many around her wore similar black coats. Coats with sharp edges and elaborate buttons. Their faces would be confused, even angry, recognizing the calling, the coat, but not the face. She wasn’t on holy or sacred ground, near loose earth, which they fed on hungrily during each funeral. A suitable alternative to flesh. Instead, they found a woman with a sugary name, who did not button her coat properly, revealing the perfect curve of her throat. Her heartbeat pulsed before them, and there was nothing to quench such hunger. Poor, sweet Candy. My grandmother likely stood over her body, whispering, “Not the most sensible thing.” Cherry Wood Coffin by Eugenia M. Triantafyllou narrated by Omega Francis The voices begin three days before someone is to die. The coffin-maker wakes up covered in sweat. He has been talking in his sleep again, his wife says, in the language of the dead. He looks at her under the waning light of the candle. Edna’s face is pallid and lined with a liquid transparency. Dark circles nestle under her eyes. He kisses her cheek and goes to work in the middle of the night. The coffin must be of mahogany, he knows that already. An important person will die, a person of wealth and power. He will figure out the rest as he goes. The coffin whispers louder and more coherently as the days pass. No, the hardwood explains, as he tries to note the measurements. Not for an adult. This will be a child’s coffin. He clenches his fists and his head stoops more than usual, but he keeps on with his work. All this time the coffin-maker is locked in his basement alone. Only once a day does his wife come downstairs to bring him bread and tea. She caresses his hair as he leans over his woodwork. She covers her mouth with a handkerchief; a stain of blood taints its whiteness. “Go rest, Edna,” he whispers. “You are sick.” The client comes on the second day, as the coffin-maker picks the coffin’s fittings. They are shaped like golden doves that fly towards the sky, albeit wounded. Seems most appropriate. She is wrapped in a red velvet shawl and smells of expensive soap. The coffin cuts in, She is the mother. She sits on the only chair he keeps in the basement. He offers her tea, but she refuses politely. When she lowers her shawl, the coffin-maker recognizes her. Mrs. Griggs, the merchant’s wife. She is upfront about it. Her son is dying, she says. It won’t be long. Surely he knows. She points at the expensive casket on his workbench. The coffin-maker’s face tightens. “Please,” she says. “My boy, my beautiful, fragile boy.” Her voice breaks, but she retains an air of pride people of her class naturally have, even when they are begging. She offers him gold. Double, no, triple what her husband will pay for the coffin. He doesn’t even have to do it himself. She has people. They will take the coffin and turn it into kindling. Then her boy can stay with her forever. He won’t face the darkness. The coffin-maker avoids the woman’s stare. “It’s against the law,” he says, trying to sound stern. He wishes it were that easy. That the woman would bow and apologize for the disturbance, then open the door and leave. But she stays there, with her red eyes, her pouch of gold. “I won’t put my boy in the ground.” The coffin-maker sighs. She is not the first to ask him this, and she won’t be the last. She doesn’t know what she is asking, though. That’s the reason there are laws about this. The dead must be allowed to rest. “Follow me, madam,” he says. The woman gives him a perplexed look but gets up and follows him upstairs. His walking is slow, burdened. Hers is light and rhythmic, more like dancing. He can hear her heels tap-taping on the stairs. He gestures towards the closed door at the back of the house. “Darling, is that you?” Edna’s voice comes from inside. The smell as they approach is putrid. The woman brings a scented handkerchief against her nose. He stops in front of the door and turns to face her. Mrs. Griggs pauses and takes a step back. “I … I don’t want to go in there,” she says with unease. He opens the door wide and lets her peer inside. Even in the half-darkness of the closed drapes and the candlelight, she can see the unnatural shape. The empty eyes. The handkerchief falls to the ground and Mrs. Griggs flinches. A muffled scream escapes her lips. “I am sorry,” the coffin-maker says, but she is already on her way out. It’s late and the coffin-maker has to finish the job. He has to varnish the casket. Tomorrow the child will die and once he is in the coffin, it will finally fall silent. But the cherry wood pile he keeps buried in the basement will never leave him alone. Grave Mother by Sarah Read narrated by Madeline Ruth Somerville The grass grows thick and green on both sides of this rail fence, each field fed with the early dead. On the right, stone lambs sleep beneath sentinel angels that weep over piles of wilted roses. On the left, granite sheets coated in lichen sink into the dirt, names worn shallow in the stone. And my face, here on the rail, an eroded marker—marble made grey with age. Here lies Margaret—Meg, to those who knew her—which was no one, not even me. Outside the fence, the stone-toothed hill slopes down into the woods. Trees push back up onto the hill, roots lifting the desecrated stones, wreaking unseen havoc on the small, unconsecrated heads resting below. Roots thread through soft fontanelles. The fence presses into my tailbone where I straddle the rail. Rose stems prick my right foot, thistle weeds jab my left. Margaret stabs my left, buried deep in her fallopian tomb. I bathe the rail in blood. I saw her heart beat for a moment—three quick flashes of a fluttering valve on a black screen. But altogether in the wrong place, to the left. I signed the papers on a Thursday, to end her and save me. When it rains, old roses wash under the fence and down the hill, where they tangle and make a dry bramble arching over the leaning stones. Their seeds dry to husks before they ever take root. On the right, dates stretch the stones wide, from weeks to years. On the left, a single day, maybe three. On my face, the lines carve a lifetime, counting backward from the day that should have been Margaret’s day. They soaked her in poison on a Friday. They said if I didn’t, I’d die. I saw her tangle of bones, a compressed nest all in the wrong place. They said some would pass through me and some would become me, but some stayed, and turned to stone. And I mark her, everywhere. The babes deep inside the high hill rest till rapture, while Margaret and I—we waited for rupture, and now it’s come. I swing my right leg over the fence, sink my feet into the weeds to the left, turn my back on the rows of angels. The warm coat of blood running down my legs soothes the nettle sting and thistle prick of the bramble by the woods. I find us a place in the tangle of roots, like the tangle of her stone bones, and I lay us down. Here lie Mother and Margaret, and as I fade into the earth, she’ll remain, watching over me, my own stone angel, my sleeping lamb. And I, the ground for Margaret, all in the wrong place. The post PseudoPod 724: Flash on the Borderlands LIII: What Dreams May Come appeared first on PseudoPod.
29 minutes | 4 months ago
PseudoPod 723: Silver as the Devil’s Necklace
Author : Isabel Cañas Narrator : Sandra Espinoza Host : Alasdair Stuart Audio Producer : Chelsea Davis Discuss on Forums PseudoPod 723: Silver as the Devil’s Necklace is a PseudoPod original. La Llorona Wiki Page https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_Llorona Old Gods of Appalachia https://www.oldgodsofappalachia.com/ La Llorona Folk Song https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_Llorona_(song) Silver as the Devil’s Necklace by Isabel Cañas A black wail of wind curls around the house, la Llorona’s cold embrace, as Ruth opens the dresser drawer and takes her father’s pistol. Its weight is an old friend, the handle nestling into her palm like it was made for her. It was already an heirloom when Da brought it to Montana, when he immigrated from the old country in his youth. It is strictly off limits. Ruth slams the drawer shut with her free hand. Damp wood scrapes and sticks; the flick of the hurricane candle shudders. The waxy complexion of la Virgen glowers at her as she clicks the pistol open and checks the chamber with trembling hands. A silver bullet gleams in the flickering light of la Virgencita’s flame. Silver, Da said, was for killing the devils that lurked in the wetlands of the old country. Or so the superstition goes. Ruth snaps the pistol shut, checks the safety, and shoves it into the pocket of her oilskin. Giving la Virgen a glower of her own, she blows out the candle. She slips out of her parents’ room, past dark, rain-slicked windows and down the stairs, wraithlike as she moves through the lodge. It is empty. Her parents drove to Big Timber to talk to the police an hour ago, and won’t be back until late. And Jo? Jo is missing. Yesterday she asked Ruth to go with her to check on the bay yearling with a limp after dark. When Ruth asked why, Jo said she’d seen an unbranded stallion past the western edge of the corral, a stallion who vanished into the darkness of the pines like a shadow. Ruth scoffed. Told her she was seeing things, and refused. So Jo went alone. And she never came back. Anyone who knows the Crazy Mountains, with its rebellious rivers and sheer valley walls, knows that a day is a long time for a girl to be missing. Anyone who knows what sort of creatures live in rivers knows a day is far too long. Ruth stops in the mudroom—barely more than a covered porch at the back of the lodge—and shoves her feet into mud-crusted boots. Rain pummels the tin roof as she laces them with shaking hands. Ruth had lied to Jo. She’d seen the stallion two weeks ago, standing beyond the fence of the corral at dusk, too still to be a part of this world. She watched it stare at Jo’s back as Jo walked the path back to the lodge, humming to herself. She watched the stallion’s silhouette bleed into the mist. Vanish on the air like smoke. Ruth and Jo were raised on stories slick with rain and churning water: water horses from Da’s old country, devils ancient as salt on the west wind, and la Llorona, the Weeper of Mamá’s village, the spirit of black rain and lost children. Ruth soaked in every legend, retelling them to herself over and over again until one bled into the next and she could no longer remember which language it was told to her in. Despite this, Ruth told Jo she’d imagined it. That she didn’t believe her, that clearly Jo was spinning tales for attention. Perhaps Ruth spoke sharply because she didn’t believe Jo. But perhaps it was because she did believe Jo, and knew that if she admitted it, the dread that curled heavy as a chain around her throat would grow strong enough to strangle her. Either way, Jo’s cheeks flushed with shame. She turned her back on Ruth and strode to the mudroom. The yellowed light bulb gilded the soft frizz of her black hair as she pulled on her boots, grabbed a flashlight, and stepped through the door into the dark. And then she was gone. Ruth sets her jaw as she wrenches that same door open and stares down the black September storm. They’d searched for hours. That night and the following morning. Up and down the riverbank in rain so thick she felt like she was drowning. Her boots sank into the mud of the bank, tears and rain slicking her cheeks as she screamed Jo’s name, screamed over the churning river. The wind howled back la Llorona’s refrain, her plea for her drowned children: ¿Has visto mis hijos? Mis hijos, mis hijos . . . Have you seen my children? Deep in her marrow, Ruth knows it was the devil. But that isn’t a story she can tell her parents. That isn’t a story to take to Big Timber to tell the police. Because she isn’t sure she fully believes it herself. Or does she? All Ruth knows is that she can’t sit in the empty house, waiting, listening to the rain. Not now. Not when her anger is pulling her to the door, pulling her into the night. Not when she has a silver bullet. Not when this was all her fault. She grabs a rope from the hooks behind the door and lets the door slam behind her, not bothering to lock it. Her plan is simple: if there truly is a water horse, a river devil, a dark stallion with no ranch’s brand, she will tempt it out of the river using the best bait she has. Herself. And then she will kill it. Ruth soldiers through muck and sheets of rain. The horses are huddled beneath their lean-to, far from the western edge of the corral, as far as possible from the river. In this knife-slim valley hours from town, the night is perfect black, and it takes until Ruth reaches the bank for her eyes to adjust. Below her is the river; swollen, bloated, spilling gluttonous over its banks. She curls stiff fingers around the rope. The wind whips at her oilskin. Mis hijos, mis hijos . . . She waits. Mamá used to warn Ruth and Jo about playing too close to the river, especially without the wolfhounds. She wove her stories thick with la Llorona’s wails to frighten her daughters away from the dark water. It worked for Jo. Every howl of night wind sent her skittering across their shared room to Ruth’s bed, convinced that every shadow that sent shivers up her neck was the whisper of the Weeper’s cloak. Ruth was more agnostic. The Weeper wasn’t real. The story’s purpose was to keep kids away from arroyos; therefore, that ghost of a woman driven mad by grief probably saved many children from flash floods. At least that must be true for Mamá’s village. Though Mamá claimed that ghosts knew no borders, that they followed their pueblo wherever they went, Ruth is certain la Llorona knows nothing of Montana pines, of rain turning to sleet as it lashes faces and freezing hands. If she did, if her territory reached this far north, she would have saved Jo from the river, and Ruth wouldn’t be standing in the rain, soaked to the bone, because she was convinced a devil took her sister. ¿Has visto mis hijos? Ruth’s shoulders ache from hunching against the cold. She curls her toes in her boots. This is stupid. She should have never left the house. Da’s water horse is no more real than la Llorona. She will find no answers to Jo’s disappearance out here. She wavers on the edge of turning back when movement from the water’s edge catches her eye. Her attention snaps to it. Is it a trick of the rain? Thick shadows cast by the pines? She stares at the riverbank, deafened by the roar of the swollen current. She wants to rip the rain aside like a curtain, she wants to see clearly so badly her throat aches. The shadow moves toward her. The air vanishes from her lungs. It’s a horse. Her pulse thrums in her ears: run, run, run. Instead, she tightens cold fingers around the rope as the horse walks up the riverbank toward her. Its eyes are fixed on her. She shouldn’t be able to tell that in the dark, but God, she knows. She knows. It is as big as a draft horse, but moves light as a cat up the muddy bank. Its coat is blacker than sin, blacker than hate, blacker than a devil’s shadow. Jo wasn’t spinning tales. One of their parents’ legends holds water. So to speak. And it isn’t la Llorona. The horse’s hooves fall silent in the mud. Ruth cannot even hear the rain as it draws up before her. It is no longer her resoluteness that anchors her where she stands but something more, something that hums along her bones and makes the hair on the back of her neck stand on end. La cuerda, mija. A voice—like her mother’s and unlike it—winds through the fog, settling behind her eyes. The rope. She loosens her frozen fingers and counts inches of lasso like a reflex, every movement drilled into her for years by Mamá. Her stiff muscles snap to life. The rope is a part of her as it sings against the wind and snakes around the horse’s neck, as she shifts her footing and yanks it taut. The world stills. The wind shifts, the rain striking her face first from one direction and then the other. The horse has vanished. Before her now stands a youth with ottersleek black hair, his complexion river silt, dressed in marsh grasses from the waist down. The rope hangs useless around his neck. Ruth, he says. His lips don’t move. Ruth. Won’t you come out of the rain? His words hum along her bones. They beckon to her, coy as the curl of a finger, brushing soft as breath on skin. Warmth blossoms in her belly at his voice, a tender ache that winds up behind her ribs like rising smoke. Rain droplets adorn his bare skin like beads of sweat, delicate gems. What would it be like to step into his embrace, to lay her head against his chest and let him sweep her away? Her mind swims; her eyes can’t focus through the rain. A feral grin steaks across the devil’s face, lightning against the storm. Ruth’s eyes fall to his throat. He has a silver necklace. Da’s stories are etched on her soul, carved to the rhythm of his pine rocking chair. In every story where the girl survived the water horse’s seduction, it was because she stole the devil’s necklace. Again that strange voice rings in her mind, sharp as the strike of a farrier’s hammer on iron. Tómalo, mija. Tómalo. Ruth’s muscles scream against the effort of lifting her arm. Swift as a rattler, she snatches the necklace from the devil’s throat. It snaps. It is hers. She has no idea how the silver pieces—bones, her stomach turns when she realizes they are silver bones, needle-thin and delicate as a birds’—came off so easily, but now that the necklace is in her hands, the devil cannot shift to his stronger form. So the superstition goes. His eyes flash with sudden hatred. His lip curls, baring sharp, dark teeth with a noise that curdles the acid in Ruth’s gut with fear. She knows two things down to her bones: this devil took Jo. And she will never get Jo back. Jo is dead. Her heart stumbles from the blow, slamming against her ribs. Her chest is an empty cavity and it is aching, her ribs laced with pain so sharp, they might curl in on themselves to the point of snapping. She shoves the necklace in her pocket and pulls out the pistol. Presses it into the devil’s smooth skin, against his ribs. Instead of fighting, instead of trying to writhe free of the rope, the devil steps close to her, leaning into the end of the pistol. He reaches up and caresses her hair with a cool and heavy hand. Gooseflesh crawls under Ruth’s oilskin as memories float to the surface of her soul, drawn out by the devil’s touch, by the devil’s will. But the memories are of swimming in the glittering river with Jo last August, of creeks, of the slip of river bottom pebbles beneath toes, and they lull her. Soothe her. Soften her her grip on the pistol. Mija, despiertate. That voice. It snaps like branches on a brittle wind, clearing her vision sharp and sudden like the shattering of a dirty windowpane. She cocks the pistol with a cold click. The devil goes unearthly still. As if he can sense the bullet in the barrel is as silver as his necklace. I am the river, he says. I am the silt. I am home. Dance with me. His voice is summer showers on tin roofs. The percussion of iron-shod hooves crossing streams. Ruth sees Jo’s black hair gleaming red in the dappled sunlight of the fir grove, riding one of the chestnut geldings, trotting just a few yards ahead of her. Jo’s lifting her hand to wave at her to hurry up. Ruth’s mind is the rush of water, a heady current. It pulls, dragging her hand and the gun slack, dragging down, down and away from the devil’s ribs. Give in, the devil says. I am home. Come dance with me. The pistol hangs heavy from her hand, heavier than a corpse. This was a fool’s errand. Ruth sees Jo’s back, her long black braid vanishing into the mist. Jo is gone because she could not fight the devil. Because she went into the night alone. Because Ruth let her go alone. And now Ruth will face the same fate, because she was arrogant enough to believe she could put a bullet between the devil’s eyes. Superstitions be damned. Mortals cannot fight devils older than stone. The devil is backing away from her now, step by step down the bank. Step by step, Ruth’s heavy boots follow through the mud. Mija, mija, ¿por qué me olvidaste? That voice—quieter now, but no less sharp. Didn’t la Llorona want to keep her children close? Snatch them safely away from the thundering rush of flash floods? If this devil is flesh before her, could la Llorona be real as the wind whipping her oilskin? Could la Llorona sweep her away from the river’s embrace? These thoughts fade away as a heaviness settles like silt over her mind, sinking into every crevice of her memory. The weight of the devil’s will smothers her resistance, the dying sparks of panic in her chest, wearing them down with the inevitability of a steady current. With her last ounce of strength, Ruth forces her tongue to form a single word: “Ayúdame.” Her lips are cold, stiff as a corpse’s. “Ayúdame.” Shadows slip around her, soft and whispering responses to her plea for help. They sweep into her mind, clearing it of silt, rinsing it clean so she is again aware, aware of the fact that she is following the devil as he backs down the riverbank, aware of the pistol slack at her side. A whisper in her ear. That voice. Aquí estoy, mija. ¿Por qué me dudaste? La Llorona curls Ruth’s fingers tighter around the handle of the pistol, holding it tight against her palm. The weight of the ghost’s hand is an old friend, reminding her that a bullet as silver as the devil’s necklace is still in the pistol’s chamber. That the devil cannot change, that he does not know the Weeper’s cloak is draped around Ruth’s shoulders, clearing her mind and showing her what the devil did: Jo’s black hair sticking to her wet face. Struggling; the snap of bones. Jo, pallid, face-up, staring blankly into the dark as the current drags her body down the swollen river. The water slicking Ruth’s cheeks is warm now. Tears blur her vision. Mi hermana, mi hermana . . . My sister. The Weeper’s whisper lifts Ruth’s chin, clear and sharp above the rush of the river. Steel certainty chills in her chest as she plants her feet in the mud. She will never get Jo back. But she can sure as hell avenge her. Ruth looks the devil in the eye and lifts the pistol. “¿Has visto mi hermana?” she asks, and pulls the trigger. The post PseudoPod 723: Silver as the Devil’s Necklace appeared first on PseudoPod.
44 minutes | 4 months ago
PseudoPod 722: Teeth – Part 2
Author : Matt Cardin Narrator : Jon Padgett Host : Alasdair Stuart Audio Producer : Chelsea Davis Discuss on Forums “Teeth” was the first story published at “Thomas Ligotti Online” in 1998. It was later reprinted in The Children of Cthulhu in 2002, in Dark Awakenings in 2010, and in the excellent 2019 collection “To Rouse Leviathan.” This last book was editor Alex’s favorite collection from 2019 and recommends it strongly to all fans of Ligotti. Part 2 of 2 Listen to the first part here: https://pseudopod.org/2020/09/11/pseudopod-721-teeth-part-1/ Other Notes: Spoiler Inside SelectShow Beneath the Rising https://www.simonandschuster.com/books/Beneath-The-Rising/Premee-Mohamed/Beneath-the-Rising/9781781087862 The N Word Through The Ages https://mediadiversified.org/2014/05/24/the-n-word-through-the-ages-the-madness-of-hp-lovecraft/comment-page-1/ Teeth by Matt Cardin 5 The words on that page signaled the end of my journey through the dark corridors of Marco’s obsession. Rather than trying to see what lay past page forty-six and risking another encounter with that awful picture, I closed the notebook and shoved it far back into a drawer, wishing fiercely that it could be equally easy to bury the memory of it. But try as I might, I could not stop my thoughts from returning to it and gnawing on it like a trapped animal might gnaw off its own leg. That was exactly the way it felt: as if I had become ensnared in some vile trap and grown so desperate to escape that I might willingly do violence to myself. But no matter how many times I examined and reexamined and struggled violently against the notebook’s all-encompassing message of horror and despair, I could find no way to extricate myself from it, no loose spring or faulty trigger in its mechanism that might allow me to slip free. Its internal coherence and emotional power, as well as its universal scope, made it the perfect prison for mind and spirit. My whole life was overturned in shockingly rapid fashion by this festering spiritual disease. For example, my teaching and class schedules that semester were mercifully light, but even the slight strain of conducting a freshman philosophy class proved almost more than I could handle. How could I speak of epistemology and metaphysics when I had recently beheld the fanged and fleshy vortex that lies waiting to devour all knowledge? How could I teach about Socrates when I had discovered that to examine one’s life is to invite a nightmarish destruction, or about Descartes when I had been shown that the thinking mind is a mere wisp of smoke blowing over a fetid ocean of entity? More than one student gave me a sidelong look as my lectures were derailed by the uncontrollable quaver that had crept into my voice. I had always basked in the knowledge of the positive impression I made on others, but now I could tell from people’s reactions that my personal manner had taken a turn for the bizarre and disturbing. And yet I was helpless to rein this in. I felt a trembling all the way to my core and found myself frequently gripped by the irrational notion that people’s altered reactions to me were caused by my new inner eye, which bathed everyone and everything in a beam of cold black light. This dark emanation, as I fancied it (even though I knew the idea was insane), was perceived by others as a certain indefinable aura of disturbance and dread in my personal presence. I knew I could not go on like this, and several courses of action suggested themselves. The most obvious was to seek psychological help. A less obvious but no less compelling possibility was to seek spiritual counseling. Medical help from a neurologist was not out of the question, nor was self-medication via any number of consciousness-clouding substances. My fundamental problem seemed to be an excess of metaphysical sight. Anything that promised to blind or even temporarily blur that deadly gaze was an attractive prospect. How, then, I ended up taking the course of action I took is still a mystery. Rather than turning to the most obvious sources of solace, I returned to the man who had done this violence to me. When all options had been considered, I could think of nothing but talking with Marco again. I had to know more about his notebook, about the impetus that had driven him to record it and the power that had led him to create that drawing. I felt that if I could not hear some answers to these and a thousand other questions, I might literally go mad with rage and confusion. So I made up my mind to see him, and that was when it dawned on me that I had neither seen nor heard from him for ten days—not since our last conversation in his dorm room. Under normal circumstances I would have wondered why he had been so conspicuously absent, since we usually ran into each other on campus almost every day. But I had been preoccupied with his notebook and my growing distress, and now that I needed him, he was missing in action. I silently cursed his ostentatious boycott of cell phones and email, which he regularly railed on as destroyers of personal solitude and public discourse. In the past I had never really felt their lack, since Marco and I had encountered each other in person as we went about our campus business. But now I found I had no way of getting in contact with him short of visiting his dorm again, which I hated to do with the memory of my awful experience there still paining me like an open wound. But I also had no choice, and so on the eleventh day after this nightmare had begun, I returned to the site of its inception. My stomach turned cold as I rode the elevator up to Marco’s floor. By the time I approached his featureless brown door, my hands were trembling. Predictably—why I should have found it predictable I don’t know, but it seemed entirely appropriate in a poetic sort of way—he did not answer when I knocked. I stood there in the hallway for a long moment, staring alternately down at the faded gray carpet and then back up at the door as I debated whether to try the knob. Each time I reached for it, a thrill of panic surged through me. Finally, in a kind of daze at the depth of my own wretchedness, I gave up and admitted that I could not do it. The situation was just too symmetrical, albeit in reverse fashion, to the door scenario in my recent dream. But I still had to find him, so next I went and inquired of his professors. They told me that he hadn’t attended classes since Monday of the previous week—the last day I had seen him. One of them, Dr. Albert Kreeft of the physics department, told me, “Be sure to tell him the entire scientific community is waiting with bated breath for his theory of everything.” The mockery in the white-haired man’s thickly accented voice was blatant, and when I asked him what he meant, he said, “Ask him sometime to show you his preliminary work suggesting a new unified field theory. The finished thesis ought to make for an interesting novel.” The physics department lay outside of my usual academic orbit, and I was unfamiliar with this thoroughly unpleasant little man. When I asked him about his relationship to Marco, he said with a sour edge, “I’m his thesis advisor,” and turned back to his computer screen, refusing even to acknowledge me anymore. And that was that. I walked out of the physics building realizing that I had already exhausted my useful options. The extent of my ignorance of Marco hit home as I recognized that the only thing left to do was to visit the places where we normally crossed paths—the library, the quad, the student commons—and hope that I would see him. So I went to those places even though I hated to be around crowds in my current condition. And of course he was nowhere to be found. I ended up on the second floor of the library at the same study kiosk where I had run into him while seeking a copy of Plotinus. Standing there beneath that tall window in that silent hall filled with row upon row of stately books, I tried to conjure a spark of my former aesthetic bliss. My unconscious mind responded by throwing up an image of chittering teeth and a mood of stark, staring barrenness. Maybe my next move was inspired by the fact that I had come full circle to the starting point of my present unhappy state. From the library I set out for Marco’s dorm again. Last time I had been following the flesh-and-blood man himself; this time I was following the thought of him. Once again, when I reached his room and knocked on the door, there was no answer. Before the memory of my dream could throw me again into that panicked paralysis, I seized the knob and wrenched it violently. Much to my surprise, it turned easily and the door swung open on silent hinges. I stepped gingerly inside and found a room where Marco was absent and nothing at all was out of order. His bed was made, his bookshelves were full, and upon opening his closet I found a rack full of clothes. I had half expected to find evidence of some sort of disturbance—clothes flung everywhere, a shattered window, who knows what. The other half of me had expected to be overwhelmed by a nameless horror. So the sight of his empty, tidy, unmolested room threw me into a fit of unfulfilled foreboding. Everything was as silent and still as a cemetery, and in that stillness an approaching culmination trembled in the air. I sat down on his bed with a hot lump in my throat, and realized with something like humor that I was about to break down and weep. Nothing made sense. Everything was wrecked and hopeless. How had I come to this in so short a time? Less than two weeks earlier, I had been leading a fairly contented life with a bright future in academia. I had taken pleasure in my work and my modest social life, including the occasional romance. I had possessed a shining intellectual and emotional intensity that brought praise from my professors. And yet all of that had been overturned and undermined in shockingly short order. When I tried now to consider my future, I saw nothing but an endless black tunnel lined with (Teeth) painful and meaningless experiences. The future was a dark, empty road winding through a blasted landscape toward the shell of a dead city. The journey was a nightmare and the destination a hell. My former goals and pleasures littered my psyche like the dry corpses of dead loved ones, and I wanted nothing more than to sink into oblivion, whether sleep or death did not matter. Was all of this really true? Was my life, was existence itself, truly what I now perceived it to be: nothing more than a short interlude in an otherwise unbroken continuum of horror, a sometimes distracting but ultimately vain dream that was destined to end with a terrible awakening to the abiding reality of chaos, of madness, of nightmare, of… (Teeth) The floor lurched beneath my feet, and with a silent hiss like the seething of stars, that gaping hole in reality opened up again, not on any page this time but within me. My nostrils were clotted with the stench of rotting, half-digested worlds, and I felt the eternal agony of infinite rows of needle teeth sinking into my soul. That should have been the end. I should have known nothing else for all eternity. But then, impossibly, it was over. The room blinked back into view. The floor rushed back into place. And I was sitting on a plain institutional bed in an ordinary dorm room on a bright spring day. The horror had claimed me and then spat me out. I was still reeling in a daze as I stood and exited Marco’s room. I could hardly walk, but a sudden impulse had taken hold of me: I wanted to finish reading Marco’s notebook. I was, in fact, desperate to do so. Caution be damned, I was going to learn what he had written beyond the page with the picture. I was going to find out everything there was to know about the thought process, emotional pattern, and dark epiphany that had flowed out of and led up to this catastrophe that had engulfed not only me but, as I strongly suspected, him as well. Riding the elevator down to the ground floor, I experienced repeated waves of joy at finding that I could still feel a sense of purpose. 6 The walk back to my house was a preview of hell itself. Although the afternoon sun hung bright and warm in a brilliant sky, and college students lounged everywhere in the refreshing air, chatting at tables and lolling on fresh green patches of landscaped lawn, I saw it all as if through a dark-tinted pane of glass. The light appeared shaded and muted, like night scenes in a movie that were obviously shot in broad daylight with a filter on the lens. I kept noticing movements in the periphery of my vision wherever shadows and dark spots lay: beneath a bench, at the foot of a hickory tree, under the granite lip of a merrily splashing fountain. In each shadow I saw what looked like living forms crouched and waiting, but when I looked directly at them they disappeared. It gradually became apparent to me that I was seeing shadows more clearly than the objects that cast them, and that my inner eye was revealing a lurking presence in them that I had never suspected. Traumatized and terrified, I finally arrived at my lonely house north of campus and collapsed on the couch. After listening to my own shaking breath for a few moments, I dragged myself to my feet and went to fetch the notebook. It remained where I had left it, at the back of my desk drawer, and I felt vaguely surprised since I had half expected the thing to have disappeared like its author. Its dull red cover seemed to mock me, as if its very muteness represented its defiance of my understanding. I sat at the desk and flipped through to page forty-seven, feeling not nearly as foolish as I had expected when I actually squeezed my eyes shut as I turned past the mandala. I opened them to see that, sure enough, there was more writing in the notebook’s latter pages. Text that normally would have filled only half a page in Marco’s virtually microscopic hand now sprawled across three pages. Reading it, I began to shiver even more violently as I understood the cause of this atypical sloppiness: Marco had scribbled these notes immediately after his own first experience with the mandala, which, as it turned out, he had not drawn of his own free will. His notes insinuated far more than they stated, and glanced upon several unfamiliar items, but I recognized their guiding emotion of horrified hysteria all too well. Ironically, they also underscored yet again just how greatly his awesome intellect and fearsome self-control exceeded mine, since it was a marvel that he was able to marshal any coherent thoughts and write any words at all in such a state. This is what he wrote: Almost sucked in. It almost pushed completely through. God, how? The perfect sequence of shapes, the perfect placement and size on the infinite continuum of distance between points. Their precise purpose in guiding my hand. Would it open the gate for anyone, render all preparation unnecessary? Chance. . . purpose. . . meaning. . . what damned idiocy! Our insane desire for “truth” when illusion is the need— fantasy, dreams, divine delusions. What price the true vision? What must we become? Lovecraft correct not only about our frightful position in the universe but about the vast conceit of those who babble of the malignant Ancient Ones. Not hostile to consciousness, indifferent to it. “Consciousness is a disease”—if only you knew, Miguel! Final horror reserved for mind, not body. Azathoth not conscious, pure Being. Consciousness, intelligence, mind the ultimate tragedy. To be somehow self-aware yet wholly incidental to the “purpose” of the universe: chaos and psychosis in human terms. Ultimate irony of human predicament: perfection of specifically human quality results in self-negation. Conscious only to become aware of the utter horror of consciousness. The ideas encoded in these words flamed inside me as I read and reread them. Much of what he had written was obscure, but I understood enough. Somehow Marco had been offered a glimpse into the chaos at the center of Being. For reasons known only to Itself, some power had chosen him as a conduit for the revelation of “our frightful position in the universe,” and then Marco, for reasons known only to himself, had shared his affliction with me. Of course this only intensified my need to find him, since I now feared that he had suffered some cosmically awful fate, and that if I continued on my current course, I would join him in it. In my anguish. I unthinkingly reached down and turned one more page of the notebook, and what I saw on the following page initiated the final phase of my descent into horror. I froze and read the item three times while its significance sank in. Then I sprang from the chair and lurched for the door, where I fumbled with the knob for a miniature eternity before finally turning it. Then I was outside and racing across campus, not caring that my front door was still banging open and the notebook was still lying open on the living room floor where I had dropped it. What I had seen was a brief news notice that Marco had clipped from the Terence Sun-Gazette, the local daily newspaper, and had pasted carefully onto the page following his feverish final notes. It stared up at my empty living room as I ran to avert an inconceivable catastrophe, its words saying far more than the journalist who wrote them had intended. WORLD-RENOWNED SCIENTIST TO LECTURE AT TERENCE UNIVERSITY British physicist and astronomer Nigel Williamson will deliver a lecture entitled “Chance, Meaning, and the Hidden Variable in the Quantum Universe” at the Terence University campus. Williamson, a Cambridge professor who is visiting Terence as the first stop on a worldwide lecture tour, is known for his tendency to ruffle the feathers of his colleagues with his unorthodox theories. His claim to have arrived at an explanation for “the seemingly causeless actions of subatomic particles” has aroused worldwide interest and a great deal of skepticism in the scientific community. He is scheduled to speak on Thursday, May 2 at 7 p.m. in the lecture hall of the Stockwell Science Building on the Terence University campus. The lecture is free and open to the public. 7 I reached the Stockwell Science Building in a matter of minutes. The run of barely a single mile had exhausted my soft scholar’s body, and I fell gasping and heaving against the double door entrance. Peering inside, I saw a digital clock on the far wall of the foyer that read 7:24. This encouraged me a little. The lecture would have already started by now and there was no obvious commotion going on, so perhaps my awful hunch had been mistaken. Still gasping, I glanced up for a moment at the twilight sky and saw a yellowish half moon shining through the branches of a scraggly tree. The once familiar disc was now the dead, decaying fetal carcass of some unimaginably monstrous creature, and while I watched in awe with my dark inner light burning like a beacon, the creature began to stir and wake. Dread washed back over me like an icy wave, and I flung myself through the door of the science building as much to escape the awakening gaze of the moon as to stop the tragedy I feared might be occurring within. I burst into the lecture hall to find a small group of middle-aged men and women checking their watches, tapping their feet, and exchanging glances filled with annoyance and unease. No lecture was in progress, and I gathered that I had entered as the impatience of the tiny crowd had reached a snapping point. Most were seated but a few had gathered around the lectern down front, where a small, nervous, balding man was blinking through thick-lensed eyeglasses and trying to placate them. Several people looked up when I entered, and I saw their faces tighten into angry-worried lines at the sight of me. Ignoring them as best I could, I made my way down to the bespectacled man. He stammered and finally stopped in his nervous explanations when I approached, and the cluster of people turned to stare at me. I asked, “Where is Professor Williamson?” and my voice emerged as a harsh demand. It also seemed to reach me from a distance, and I noticed that I didn’t feel a part of the situation at all, but rather like a spectator watching a theatrical presentation in which I and the others were performing. The jittery little man played his part admirably. “I was just explaining—” he began, and then tripped over his own jitteriness. His role was obviously that of the Flustered Mousy Man, whereas mine was at least partly that of The One Who Flusters. He finally gave up and gestured miserably toward a door behind him that appeared to lead into a conference room. “He’s in there.” “Is he alone?” Mousy Man was growing more unhappy with each passing second. “Well, no. There’s somebody in there with him. Like I’ve been telling these people, a very agitated young man showed up a few minutes before seven and demanded to see the professor. I told him we were busy, but then Nigel came out and chatted with him for a minute, and seemed quite interested in what the young man had to say. Fascinated, actually. They went into the conference room half an hour ago and haven’t come out.” “Have you knocked?” By this point I was all but yelling, and the other performers’ eyes were widening as they subtly drew away and left me alone to dominate the stage and my unfortunate foil. “Well, no,” he said, and began shifting from foot to foot. “I didn’t feel comfortable interrupting them. And the young man, he was quite. . . passionate. His eyes were wild, like—.” He cut himself short and looked to someone, anyone, for help, but I could read the unspoken words in his anxious and forlorn expression: like your eyes. I opened my mouth to speak another line, but a sudden loud thump from the conference room silenced us all. It sounded like a heavy chair or table falling over. Then: a wild, incoherent shouting that froze my blood. For even through the thick oaken door and the hysterical tone, I recognized the voice and accent of my friend Marco. I bolted past the stunned group of spectators and grabbed the door handle, only to find it locked. Now another voice, panicked and British and sharp with terror, answered Marco’s, and the rest of the scene played out offstage, behind the locked door. WILLIAMSON (Terrified) What are you doing? MARCO (Frantically yelling) You must not! Those who know it fully would perish! The Gate is in the great and the small! You cannot let the madness become sanity! (There is a tremendous sound of shattering glass.) WILLIAMSON Stop it! What are you doing? (Shouting and pounding on the door) Roger! Open the door! Roger! (Rising to a shriek) NO! STOP! (There is a sound like a knife stabbing into a side of beef. WILLIAMSON’s words shatter into an incoherent screech, followed by a liquid choking. A second sound emerges: a wet tearing like the shredding of damp cloth. WILLIAMSON’s voice falls silent.) MARCO (Screaming as if in mortal agony) The Gate above and below! The One in the many! Oh God, the teeth! The TEEEEETH! (Silence, textured by the sly, slick tinkling of some heavy object being dragged through shards of glass.) (BLACKOUT) (END OF SCENE) The play was over. The spectator feeling dissolved and I stepped off the stage into reality. Everything was completely, horribly present and actual. A woman in the crowd was weeping. A man had run halfway up the stairs toward the rear exit and then stopped, and now stood there blinking in befuddlement as if he had lost his way. The rest of the group stood and sat in various states of paralyzed shock. Then the spell broke all at once and panic set in. Some sprang for the exits while others rushed toward me. Everyone screamed and shouted something different to do, until finally someone ran out to the hallway, blundered into an unlocked maintenance closet, and returned with an enormous claw hammer. I snatched it from him and set to work on the door handle while somebody else phoned the police. The handle separated and crashed to the carpet after six stout blows. Clutching the hammer like a talisman, I pushed the door open and took a faltering step forward while the others clustered behind me in a sudden, awed silence.. The room I had entered was a standard conference room stocked with a long, narrow table and eight plastic chairs. One of these was sprawled on its back amidst the wreckage of an overturned barrister’s bookcase, whose windows had exploded on impact with the edge of the table and then the face of the floor. The resulting spray of glass was soaked with what looked like gallons of blood. The net effect was a floor carpeted with crimson diamonds and jagged, bloody eggshells. My eyes followed a distinctly differentiated blood trail through the carnage, tracing it to the point where it disappeared behind the table. As if caught in a nightmare, I crunched unhesitatingly across the crimson carpet to gaze upon what it was that I had gone there to prevent. Nigel Williamson—physicist, astronomer, Cambridge professor, brilliant iconoclast—would never have the chance to reveal to the world his grand theory concerning the inner purpose of the universe as embodied in the chaotic irrationalities of the quantum realm. His intellectual brilliance had not been enough to save him, for now he lay on his back behind the table where Marco had dragged him, the nine-inch piece of glass Marco had used to eviscerate him still protruding from his side. His frozen expression of horror must have matched the one that slowly began to twist my own face, but if so, I was unaware of it. My eyes, my mind, my awareness, my very being, were all filled to bursting by a sight that blazed with a too-real intensity and became an instant symbol of everything I had realized and endured: the blood-spattered, empty-eyed face of my friend Marco as he crouched over the professor’s body and mechanically devoured his innards. 8 That gruesome image with its oversaturated quality of ontological vividness remained with me forever, even after the passing of years had begun to blunt some of the other memories. Some of the first of those to go were the ones concerning the immediate aftermath of that final event. I remember there was quite a furor on campus and in the town, and even in the national news media. I know I was asked many questions by people acting in official capacities. But the specifics of it all, just like the specifics of the actions that I and the others took right after we found Marco in there with the professor, have been swallowed up by the image of that bloody face with its blank eyes and mechanical masticating motion. What I do remember with clarity are my broad reactions to the uproar, since they changed the course of my life and brought me to my present circumstance. At the height of it all, when I feared I might literally go insane from everything, I quit my beloved studies and relocated to another town where nobody knew me and I could live in relative anonymity. I still live there today, and hold down the most trivial job I could find that will still provide me with enough income to afford a shoddy apartment where I hide from the world and hope for a merciful end to my existence. In general, I apply myself diligently to ignoring and forgetting the world outside the bubble of boredom that I have created. But from time to time I buy a newspaper or switch on my little television to see if the direction of world events might have changed a little. And of course it has not, nor will it ever. For everything is still disintegrating inexorably into madness, and I, unlike most people, know precisely why. Before Marco dragged me into his living nightmare, I was worried like everyone else about the mass cultural insanity that had gripped the 20th and early 21st centuries. Like everyone else, I noticed that things seemed to be roaring toward an apocalyptic climax, and I had my pet theories to explain it all. But now I see how absurd they all were. Because what is happening is in fact a profound and far-reaching reordering of reality itself—societal, cultural, personal, and even physical. In essence, the prophecies of Lovecraft and Nietzsche are coming true right before our eyes, with effects that are not only personal and cultural but ontological. Our excess of vast scientific knowledge and technological prowess has proceeded in lockstep with a collective descent into species-level insanity. You only have to watch two minutes of television, glance at a headline, or eavesdrop on a random conversation to learn of it. Ignorance and idiocy. Riots and revolutions. These and a thousand other signposts like them are only the most pointed and obvious manifestations of the all-pervasive malaise that has come to define us. And since, as Sankara observed, we are nothing but particularized manifestations of the Ground of Being itself, we are not only witnesses to this breakdown but participants in it, enablers of the transformation of the world into a vale of horror through the metaphysical potency of our very witnessing. God looks out through each of our eyes, an abyss of insatiable hunger and infinite teeth, and the dark light of His consciousness makes each of us a lamp that illuminates a new and terrible truth. I find it ironic that the man who cursed me with this vision of the world will not even be aware of it when everything comes to fruition. Marco spends his days and nights screaming out his madness in a prison for the criminally insane. I visited him only once, when the police were still trying to discover where he had hidden himself during his ten-day absence (a question they never answered, nor did I). I almost couldn’t bear to look at him, and when I finally did meet his gaze, I knew at once that my friend was dead. His eyes had gone permanently dark in the manner I had briefly glimpsed so long ago in his dorm room, and I recognized his condition as an advanced case of the same state that would sooner or later manifest in every person on the planet. Something had compelled me to bring the notebook, which I had retrieved from my living room floor and then carefully preserved for no reason I could articulate. When I showed it to Marco, he sprang at me without warning and knocked me to the floor, snarling and shrieking in a feral frenzy. The savagery of his attack stunned me, and before I could recover, he had seized the notebook with his teeth and shaken it to shreds like a dog with a rat. Then he turned on me again, and it was only the intervention of the hospital staff that saved me from having my throat torn out. His doctors said it would be best if I stayed away after that. Later, I heard that he managed to break his restraints after I left, and that in the absence of another object he turned on himself. Before the orderlies could reach him, he chewed off and swallowed two of his own fingers. What scares me the most is knowing that the transcendent insanity gnawing at the shell of Marco is the same insanity that waits to welcome me in death. All too well do I understand the wisdom of the ancient Greeks, which held that the best thing is never to have been born. To exist at all is to know the horror of no escape. Nietzsche said the thought of suicide can comfort a man through many a dark night, but it is no comfort to someone like me who knows all too well what awaits. There is only one hope for my salvation. Over the years I have become an assiduous student of Lovecraft, not just his stories but his essays and letters. And I have marveled at the man’s uncanny ability to see so deeply into the truth and yet remain so composed and kindhearted. Perhaps this gentle New Englander knew something that I do not, something he tried to convey when he wrote of the “vast conceit of those who had babbled of the malignant Ancient Ones.” Perhaps the horror exists only in me, not in reality. Perhaps Marco was wrong, and there is no need to fear the truth. After all, It knows only Itself, and maybe I will not perceive It as horrific after I die. Perhaps I will be so thoroughly consumed by and identified with it that “I” will not even exist at all, and my sense of horror will prove to be as fleeting and finite as the self that sensed it. If this is true, then may it come quickly. But this hope, however appealing, can never sustain me for long. For it is clear that I am already identified with that horrible truth, and yet I still find it a horror. The clear evidence of this identification manifests in my own body, in the fundamental physical drive that compels me to take nourishment and the anatomical structures that have been evolved to accomplish this purpose: lips and tongue, teeth and gums, throat and stomach. Life, as Joseph Campbell once observed, is a horrific thing that sustains itself by feeding on other life. I have gained a new and awful awareness of this fact in the form of a certain nagging sensitivity in my mouth. All day and night I am plagued by an unpleasant awareness of those protruding bits of bone whose function is to grind plant and animal flesh to a pulp in order to sustain this bodily life. Sometimes when this awareness has tortured me for hours on end, I will go to the mirror and draw back my lips to gaze at the truth. This mockery of the facial expression that conventionally expresses pleasure reminds me a bit of the bliss I once hoped to find in philosophies of ultimate beauty. But even that is gone now, swallowed down the bottomless throat of the cosmic mystery that forever feeds on all things. Do I seem mad? Do I sound like a man who has become lost in his own private delusion of hell? Then let me remind you that you, too, exhibit the same stigmata in your own body. Show me your smile and I will show you your fate. The post PseudoPod 722: Teeth – Part 2 appeared first on PseudoPod.
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