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35 minutes | 2 days ago
PseudoPod 757: Flash on the Borderlands LVI: The Heart’s Filthy Lesson
Authors : Couri Johnson, Dorothy Quick, Trace Conger and Peter Adam Salomon Narrators : Eliza Chan, Dave Thompson, Amanda Ching and Lisa Hicks Host : Alasdair Stuart Audio Producer : Chelsea Davis Discuss on Forums “The Woman the Spiders Loved” first appeared in Penultimate Peanut and was reprinted in her 2020 collection I’ll Tell You a Love Story. “Edge of the Cliff” was first published in Weird... Source
34 minutes | 8 days ago
PseudoPod 756: To Witness
Author : Luciano Marano Narrator : Julian Bane Host : Alasdair Stuart Audio Producer : Chelsea Davis Discuss on Forums PseudoPod 756: To Witness is a PseudoPod original. Though the author is a professional photojournalist and has covered many car crashes, all characters, events, and organizations depicted in this story are fictional. Bad Samaritan (YouTube link) Don’t Breathe (YouTube link)... Source
26 minutes | 16 days ago
PseudoPod 755: Exquisite
Author : Alan Baxter Narrator : Dan Rabarts Host : Alasdair Stuart Audio Producer : Marty Perrett Discuss on Forums “Exquisite” first appeared in the 2019 collection Served Cold. “On the Eyeball Floor” by Tina Connolly Scarfolk Hookland Exquisite by Alan Baxter Tim Rinneman had never met a lock he couldn’t pick. It was his expertise, his pride. And his curse, as it had become a compulsion he could not resist. He grinned as he worked at the front door of his latest target, hidden in the night shadows of the porch. He had cased the joint for nearly a week, established it was occupied by a lonely but wealthy-looking man in his late forties or early fifties, who went drinking at the Blakeley Hotel every night from seven until around nine. Easy mark. The lock barrel turned and Tim let out an almost silent, “Yes!” He slipped his lock picks back into the pocket of his dark grey jacket—everyone knew you didn’t wear black to be camouflaged at night—and pushed the door open. His wool cap was low over his brow and a grey bandana masked the lower half of his face. Tight, rubber surgical gloves kept his fingerprints private. He had been caught twice before, and twice avoided jail. Once, still a minor, he had been put on a good behaviour bond for two years. Then, right after he became a legal adult, he was caught again but managed to get away with community service and a three-year suspended sentence. Any further run-ins with the law and he would immediately go down for those three years, plus whatever the judge decided to hit him with for the new offence. But he simply couldn’t help himself, and he wasn’t going to get caught. He had been young and stupid. At twenty-two, he was still young, but not foolish any more. Worldly wise. Street smart. Savvy. That’s how he knew the occupant drank red wine, like some freaking connoisseur, every night at the Blakeley. The door clicked closed behind him. He stood for a moment in the gloomy hallway, hands on his hips, enjoying the simple thrill of invasion. Then he nodded to himself. “Time to get to work!” Usually women provided the best, most portable loot in the form of jewellery, but it wasn’t the haul as much as the buzz of the crime that drove him. Anyway, these days it was easy to collect laptops and iPads and all manner of other swag both compact and valuable. Of course, that brought with it a modern problem, avoiding the internal security of such items, but Tim had contacts for that side of things. He climbed the stairs to find three bedrooms. One a small, sparse room with a double bed, side table, and little else. The next was like an old-fashioned boudoir, all red silks and purple velvets, ivory combs and crystal perfume bottles. Tim stared. He knew the man lived alone. Did he have some kind of gender or transvestite curiosity going on? No matter, Tim wasn’t the kind to judge. The room had the vibe of a museum. A well-stocked museum, for that matter. Tim sniggered and began emptying the contents of a jewellery box into the side pockets of his backpack. The stuff looked old and valuable, crusted with gems, glittering gold and silver. The third room was clearly the homeowner’s, everything about it redolent of a bachelor who was fastidiously tidy and organised. An expensive watch lay on the dresser and Tim nabbed that. His heart thrummed, adrenaline raced with the thrill of the theft. Tim Rinneman in his natural habitat, doing what he did best. Downstairs he filled his backpack with a laptop, a Samsung tablet, several items of silver from a cabinet, an impressive carving of an entire Asian village, in delicate detail, in a single piece of elephant tusk, and nearly a grand in cash. Honestly, the stuff people left lying around or tucked into unlocked drawers never ceased to amaze him. A knitted throw rug lay over the back of a sofa, and he used it to wrap and muffle his hoard then settled the backpack comfortably into place. It felt reassuringly weighty on his shoulders, bulging almost fit to burst. Thoroughly pleased with himself he headed for the exit. He glanced back to consider the kitchen at the back of the house, but there was rarely anything in kitchens. He paused. Sometimes a valuable item might be left on a bench… He hurried in and scanned around once. Nothing. Good. Returning to the front of the house, he passed a door under the stairs he hadn’t paid mind to before, but a new detail caught his eye. It had a Yale lock beside a small, looped metal handle. Who locked the cupboard under the stairs? He pulled on the handle, but the door didn’t budge. Curiosity burned. If it was locked it could only be because there was something of value inside. Tim pulled out his lock picks and went to work. It took less than a minute and he was in. Grinning, he pulled the door wide and saw not a cupboard, but stairs leading down into a basement. Light spilled up from below. He hadn’t expected that. He had promised himself that he would be in and out in under thirty minutes. He checked his watch. Twenty-five minutes so far. Smart thieves didn’t compromise their plans. That’s why plans were made, to avoid cock-ups on the job. So he had five minutes for a quick once around the basement. Or four, to allow a minute for his exit and stay within The Plan. He crept down the stairs into the stark, fluorescent light. A long bench against one wall came into view, covered with a neatly organised array of shining silver knives and drills. And bone saws. And a dozen other implements of surgery Tim could not readily identify. The room was spotless, like a surgical theatre. As he got halfway down the stairs he noticed a couple of glass-fronted cabinets, metal gas bottles on wheeled stands with clear plastic masks hanging from them. And ten blood-stained toes. He staggered to a shocked halt. Bile rising, heart racing, he crept a couple more steps down and the grisly display revealed itself in full. A man lay strapped to a metal table, tilted almost vertical. His arms were belted out to either side like a crucifixion, his head held against a black rubber rest with another brown leather belt. Blood transfusion bags were attached with snaking tubes. Other drips, clear and unidentifiable, stood on the opposite side. The man was naked and desecrated. His toes were bleeding because each nail had been plucked away, as had his fingernails. In patches all over his legs and torso, small areas of skin had been flayed and folded back, neatly presenting slabs of wet, red muscle. Along one forearm, a several-inch length of bright white ulna was exposed to the air. His penis had been vertically bisected and hung open against the top of each thigh. His jaw was stretched wide with a bright, chromed device of bars and screws, and several dark, red holes dotted his gums were teeth should have been. His eyelids were gone, his eyes crimson-rimmed. And those eyes! They stared at Tim with such beseeching, such desperate pleading. The man’s tongue danced in his wide gaping mouth as he expelled short, sharps breaths and gurgling grunts. Tim cried out, his vision swimming as vomit shot into his throat and was only prevented from expulsion because his heart was already blocking the way. He staggered away, tripping and stumbling back up the stairs, wanting nothing except the outside. Fresh air, not this house, not that sight, he wanted to be far away and fast asleep and he would never, ever get that vision of atrocity out of his mind. Tears streaming his cheeks, breath in hard gasps, he spun a full three-sixty to slam the basement door, ran through the house, backpack slamming against his shoulders, and out the front. He dragged that door closed without stopping and bolted down the path, out to the street, and didn’t stop running until he was a dozen blocks away and dizzy with exhaustion. Tim found a pub and ordered a double bourbon. He downed it in one and ordered another. What the hell was he supposed to do now? His cap and bandana were stuffed into the backpack that was heavy with loot which now felt like the greatest burden a man could carry. He should just throw the lot off a bridge into the river, let it sink and never be found. His prints were not in the house, he was certain he hadn’t left hair or anything else to be found by any forensics team. He could just walk away and be done with it all. Pretend it never happened, except for the image burned into his brain of that poor bastard. He shouldn’t have run. How could he walk away from that guy? But if he called it in, the police would want to know how he knew about the situation, and that would only get him busted. That meant a guaranteed three years in the can, plus a new sentence. No way was he going to do time like that if he could help it. He could call it in anonymously, but then there was no guarantee it would be taken seriously. And he would get no closure, no knowledge the victim was saved. Then he realised that his reluctance all came back to the fact that he had fled in horror. Given all the poor man’s suffering, wasn’t that perhaps the cruellest cut of all? That salvation had been right there at hand, yet it had run gagging and crying from the sight? Tim needed to fix that. A cold certainty settled over him. He would have to go back and save the man. The thought sent shudders through him once more. He was a burglar, but he wasn’t a bad person. He knew right from wrong, even though he chose to do small wrongs from time to time. It wasn’t his fault he’d grown up with drunk and distant parents who refused to enforce his schooling. It wasn’t his fault he’d ended up uneducated and unemployable and had turned to a life of petty crime. Well, maybe it was his fault, in part. He was smart even if he wasn’t educated, and he could still turn that around. Go to night school or something, learn a trade. He could make a much safer living sweeping the bloody street if it was only about paying the rent. It wasn’t. It was about that buzz, the decadence of the non-conformist. But everything had changed now. He swallowed the whiskey and ordered another, paying with the freshly stolen cash. It was well after 8:00 p.m. No way was he going back tonight and risk running into the evil prick who owned the place. He would go back tomorrow, with his Uncle Pete’s car, and rescue the poor bastard. He’d simply take him to hospital, leave him in the emergency department and scarper. Easy. Uncle Pete would lend him the car, no problem. And if the guy doesn’t go out tomorrow because he’s been robbed tonight? a small voice taunted in the back of Tim’s mind, but he pushed it away. Tomorrow. He’d go back and rescue the guy then. The night was bright with moonlight when Tim parked Pete’s battered old station wagon at the curb and stared along the street to the charnel house. It looked so normal from the outside, just like the dozens of others either side of it. He sat and waited, fingers toying with the phone in his pocket. I should just call it in anonymously. Find a public phone. But he stayed put, watching. He jumped as the front door opened and the large man emerged. He wore his signature three-piece suit, silk shirt and matching handkerchief in his jacket pocket. Bowtie. His shoes were shined like mirrors, reflective in the night like his slicked-back dark hair. He headed off towards the Blakeley like it was any other night. Tim fumed at the man’s nonchalance. Perhaps the fact he was leaving was evidence enough that, although he must realise he’d been robbed, perhaps he assumed the burglar hadn’t found the basement hell. And given what he had down there, the bastard was surely not about to report the robbery. There was some vindication for Tim in that. Last night he stole the man’s goods and chattels. Tonight he would deprive him of his sick fun. He watched the butcher all the way down two blocks until the distant figure turned left towards the Blakeley. Tim’s heart hammered as he picked the lock of the front door for the second time. He crept along the hallway, swallowing repeatedly against his nerves and the anticipation of what he might see. Would the man’s torture have progressed further? There was a moment of panic at the thought the whole thing might be ended already, the body removed in the face of the previous night’s incursion. Only one way to find out. He picked the basement lock, hurried down into the brightness, and cried out in shock at the sight. The man’s torture had indeed progressed. Both shins had been laid open, the flesh folded to either side like fillets of salmon, exposing stark bone. His testicles each hung down near his knees on a single thread of tissue, the scrotum gone. Glistening organs pulsed through windows carved in his abdomen. But worst of all was the poor bastard’s head. The top of the skull had been removed above the eyebrows and the exposed brain bristled with filament-like acupuncture needles. And yet somehow, the man lived. One eye rolled in its socket, the other an empty red and black cavern. His tongue was absent, and wet, slushing breaths rasped in his throat. A sob escaped Tim as he stared, dizzy and trembling. There was no way he could move this person without killing him for sure. His fucking brain was uncovered! “Keeping them alive is the real art. Just enough new blood, antibiotics, shock treatments.” Tim cried out and spun around. The well-dressed man stood at the top of the stairs, his bulk filling the doorframe. “That’s what they pay me for, of course.” Tim shook his head, close to unconsciousness. “What?” The man slowly descended and held out a business card. “This is me.” With shaking hands, Tim took the card and numbly read. PATRICK MISLOVSKI PURVEYOR OF THE EXQUISITE “What?” Tim said again. “I’m impressed you came back,” Mislovski said, his tone calm, entirely relaxed. “You planned to save him? Very noble. But as you can see, he’s deep in his experience now and it would be a travesty to interrupt it or end it early.” “Travesty…?” Tim could feel something nipping at the edges of his mind and he realised it was madness. He felt something in his head that was very ready to snap. “You’re a fucking monster!” “I am an artist.” Tim stuttered and gaped, convinced his fate was equal to that of the man strapped upright. “I will largely ignore the outrageous liberties you took in here last night,” Mislovski went on. “But I must insist you return my mother’s jewellery. And then you can leave and we’ll call it even, yes?” “I… I can’t leave…leave him…” Tim’s mind was spinning, desperate to find purchase in some course of action, some semblance of sanity. “There are hidden cameras throughout the house, Timothy Rinneman,” Mislovski said, and Tim’s bladder let go. The large man either didn’t notice or chose to ignore it. “I know who you are, and I know you’re hanging by a thread in regards to prison. Let me convince you that this man chose to be here, paid very handsomely for the privilege, in fact, and then you and I can go about our business as usual. We each have something over the other, no?” The absurdity of the man’s claims was finally giving Tim something to cling onto. “You can’t compare a few years for burglary to this!” he said, gesturing at the brutality. Mislovski produced a photograph from his pocket and handed it over. It showed the large man with his arm around the shoulders of another, younger man. Both were smiling. Between them they held up a piece of paper on which was written: PAIN IS THE ONLY TRUE EXPERIENCE. EXQUISITE IS THE ULTIMATE, ENDURING RELEASE. I CONSENT. Below the words was a date, from a little over a week before. Tim looked at the man on the metal bed. Remembered him from the previous night when he was more intact. It was definitely the same person. “I always have a photo like that,” Mislovski said. “Partly as a keepsake from each client, partly as a possible defence should something go wrong. It’s no real defence, of course. A person can’t sign away their statutory right to life. They can’t absolve me of murder. But they do consent, they do pay very well, and I am the best at what I do.” Tim thought back to the night before and a terrible realisation arose in his mind. Those beseeching eyes as he’d crept down the stairs. It was so obvious now in context. The man had not been pleading with Tim to rescue him. He’d been desperately willing Tim to leave. Those eyes weren’t saying, “Save me!” They were begging, “Don’t ruin this!” Tim Rinneman had never met a lock he couldn’t pick. But he would never be exercising those skills again. He busied himself stacking empty, flattened cardboard boxes for the huge recycling bins in the concrete yard outside and thought about his forklift driver’s licence test that afternoon. A job in a big warehouse like this was perfect, keeping his body and mind busy without too many people around. Without too many people to watch, and wonder what they might have in their basements. Or wonder what they might secretly desire. The post PseudoPod 755: Exquisite appeared first on PseudoPod.
29 minutes | 23 days ago
PseudoPod 754: Flash on the Borderlands LV: The Easily Digested Hurt
Authors : Matt Thompson, Glynn R. Forsythe and Alexandra Duncan Narrators : Kat Day, Karlo Yeager Rodriguez and Tina Connolly Host : Alasdair Stuart Audio Producer : Marty Perrett Discuss on Forums “Step Down, Step Down” is a PseudoPod original “Snip Snip Snip” is a PseudoPod original “My Guests” was put up as an earlier draft for criticism on the SFF Chronicles website, Step Down, Step Down: “I’ve always been fascinated by the tradition of murder ballads that are still sung and passed down where I live in the southern Appalachian mountains. The haunting songs call out from that murky territory where good and evil, beauty and cruelty mix to be reinterpreted and made into something both ancient and new.” “Snip Snip Snip” was inspired by ‘The Finishing Line’. “My Guests”: “This story emerged after I read an article about termites titled ‘A giant crawling brain’. It talks about how the termite mound could be considered a composite animal, with constructed lungs, a warrior caste immune system and the workers as mouth and blood supply. I tried to write it a few times, but I could feel my subconscious still chewing on the idea. Eventually, properly masticated and probably digested by a symbiotic fungus, the story emerged on its own. I don’t normally work like that.” A fantasy the way it could. A picture of us in a dream. Step Down, Step Down by Alexandra Duncan You’ve heard the ballads of young women murdered, drowned down by the river banks. I am one such maid. He asked me once to be his love He asked it two and three I ne’er knew my answer would Be the death of me. Sometimes we are killed by brigands. Other times by a cruel sister. But most often by our lovers. We are always rosy-cheeked and demure. We die beautiful and tragic, and our murderer sings his lament from the gallows. He regrets it, but he had no choice. Fate drove his hand. Perhaps he even placed a posy in our cold grip as a we lay among the long grass. As for me? Step down and I will tell you. Was I murdered by a draught of poisoned wine? A rapier through my breast? A blow to the head as I stood gazing at the way the light of the late afternoon turned the river to molten gold? What did I think of in those final moments? The sweet drop of honeysuckle as he pinched the bloom and touched the stamen to my tongue? The way the leaves show their pale underbellies in a storm? My little sister slipping her small feet into my shoes? Step down among the reeds and I will tell you. I always heard tell of angel bands and welcoming arms on the other side. But instead I find myself here. In the winter, ice clings to the rocks along the bank and the water is frigid. Its surface is gray as my skin, gray as the sky, and below my hair streams slick as the currents. Not even the fish and frogs keep me company. They are rooted down in the mud, waiting for a friendlier season. But ah, then summer comes, and the polliwogs and minnows. And young men such as yourself. The water never grows much warmer. Put your feet in. See? But I remember what it was to be warm, and I remember I used to sing. Listen to the cicadas. Do you hear them? They were thrumming at my back the day I died, their sound thickening the air. If you listen hard enough, you will hear me humming behind their voices. Won’t you step in with me? Further. Up to your knees. The chill isn’t so bad once you grow accustomed to it and the water is clear. See the little fish nibbling at your feet? They must like the taste of you. It’s been so long since someone lent me a listening ear. Time, it will come and it will go For all men it draws near But there’s no time for a poor drowned maid She ever lingers here. Do you dream of love? I dreamed of it, once, too. Pushing open the garden gate by moonlight. Eyes large and dark with desire, or the dim, or both. Hurried hands in hair, on buttons, on skin. I never dreamed the bruises on my arm, those same eyes charged with hate. Perhaps I should have looked harder, been more exacting in my choices. Come down by the riverside, he said. Come walk with me. And I did. Because I loved him. Because I knew what would happen if he found himself disappointed. If I’d said no, you might have come across me wandering our old house with the rocking chair porch that bowed in the middle, instead of here by the water. Isn’t it strange how the cold feels almost warm after a time? Sometimes I lie back and let myself float along the surface, let the current carry me what feels like miles. But then I look up and I’m here still, in the same place. Try it. See? There used to be a poplar tree there by the bank, before they cut it down. I died beneath its branches, but I never held it against the tree. My blood made it no less beautiful. Won’t you take my hand? It’s so kind of you to stay with me. I’ve been so lonely, especially in the cold months, when no one visits the river. Look up at the sky, at the way the clouds make pictures and cast shadows on the water. That one looks like a hammer, don’t you think? And that one, a coffin. You can tell me about yourself. Did you love a maid such as me? That is what I am, is it not? Did you ever do her wrong? Or would you have done, in time? So many men swear they would not, but we never know what we might do until it’s done. You aren’t thinking of going yet, are you? Do not struggle. You know I would never leave you. Sink down. Breathe deep. We have all the time in the world. Come down, come down to the riverbed And give your hand to me Step down, step down to the waters clear Your true love for to see. Snip Snip Snip by Matt Thompson Ginny came into school today with half her thumb missing. Her mum had bandaged it okay—you couldn’t see much blood, and Ginny told us it didn’t hurt, not really. She wouldn’t let on what she’d done, though. Not even when Jordan squeezed the wound to make her tell. It can’t have been anything too bad. If it had been she’d have lost more fingers than she did. “The Snipper’s coming back for the rest,” Jordan taunted, until one of the teachers dragged him off to detention. Ginny was so scared she was sent home for the day. She’ll be okay, though. They say the Snipper only visits you once. No-one’s ever seen him. Jordan said he woke up in the middle of it when it happened to him. The Snipper’s hair was made of razor wire, he said, and his teeth made of piano keys, and his fingernails sharpened into box-cutter blades. He ended up with one thumb and a pinkie finger gone. We all think he’s telling stories to distract from the way his scars look like cat’s faces. Maybe he drowned one, who knows? The Snipper knows. Mo in year six lost the top half of both thumbs. That’s worse than losing all of one. Now he has to hold his pencil between his first and middle fingers, and when he writes it looks like he’s back in year one again. Ginny said he’d stolen 50p off one of the juniors, and that was why the Snipper came for him. Already his stumps are healing into sharp edges, like a 50p piece, so maybe she’s right. Still, she can talk. We’ll find out her crime soon enough when the scars form. But me? I don’t think I’ve done anything so bad. Well—maybe sometimes. When I was six I told mum that my little cousin Sukie stole a packet of biscuits I’d taken myself. I didn’t say anything when Auntie Vicky made Sukie apologise, even when she started crying. Is that enough for the Snipper? Or that time I pushed Felipe into the school pond? Or when I told mum I wished dad had taken me with him when he left? All the parents and teachers just try and pretend it’s not happening. Doesn’t seem to be working. Praying doesn’t help either. So when the Snipper finally comes for me it’ll almost be a relief. I even kind of want to know what the worst thing I’ve ever done is. Maybe that’ll hurt more than the snipping? But at least it’ll be over with. Unless I do something else to make him angry. Jordan’s been limping lately. “Stubbed my toe,” he said when I asked. “Yeah?” He didn’t answer. Just winced, and wouldn’t look at me, and hobbled away with one foot dragging sideways like he was walking on knives. My Guests By Glynn Forsythe Six antennae wiggle at me as I stare into the hole. They are tiny and perfect, emerging from the dark while the owners cower in the safe space I provide. I won’t let anyone hurt you, little wigglers, you’re safe with me. It doesn’t hurt, the hole. It’s just a little gap in my shin, the skin around it slightly pink and shiny like scar tissue. It goes quite deep, I think, but I don’t want to shine a light down there and panic my guests. They panic enough when I stand up, antennae waving wildly at the motion. I wear loose cotton trousers to work. They aren’t really uniform, but I’m a favourite with Helen so I get away with it. I don’t do good work today. I’m too concerned about my guests, suddenly in a new environment out of my flat. I’m also feeling paranoid about my walk. Does it look funny? It feels like my left leg is lighter than my right, as though it’s been hollowed out. It’s OK if it has, I like being a good home, but I know my colleagues wouldn’t understand. I suddenly can’t bear the thought of questions, or worse, prodding fingers. I leave early. I buy a lot of food on my way home. Trying to work was too much, I’ll call in sick for a while and stay inside, make certain my little charges are safe. They are uninterested in any of the food I offer them. Sugary, fatty, protein. I lie on the lawn outside in the evening sunshine and doze off for a moment. When I wake there is a small bare patch beside my leg where all the grass is gone. I’m glad. The next morning I stand up, I look down, expecting to see the panicked wiggle once more, but instead the hole is plugged completely by a darker round head with a threatening nozzle. They have started to develop different castes. This must be a big step, I feel a parental pride pooling under my ribs. Both legs feel light today, bringing my gait back into balance. I only walk down the stairs though, and settle on the grass again. I eat sandwiches as I sit and watch the hole be tentatively unplugged, then one small form after another negotiate the hairs on my leg to bring back a snip of grass. They are so brave, these tiny creatures in such a big world. I read about termites. I don’t know if my tenants are termites, but they could be. I learn a queen could live for fifty years. That their mounds have a hard skin and chambers for lungs. I have a soft skin, hard centre and I have my own lungs. I will be a better home. The little guys and girls snipping grass by my leg are so coordinated. They bump, smell and pass each other constantly to form a living conveyor belt. Does any one individual know their plan? Does it even make sense to think of an individual termite? These are my teeth, chewing and pulling nutrients into me. I’ve often regretted that my landlord lives upstairs from me. He heard the crash as the window fell out last night. I would have lived without glass for a while and been happy, but he sees where the wood was eaten away. “Termites,” he tells me. “I’ll get pest control in as soon as I can.” I tire of his apologies and usher him out. “You’re looking good at least,” he tells me on the way, like a consolation prize. “Whatever you’re doing keep it up.” I’ll have to leave, even inside me they might not be safe from toxic treatments. I start to pack, but most of my clothes no longer fit. I’m no heavier, but my skin feels tight. My landlord is right though, I do look good. My skin is clear, my eyes shine. I have a purpose. I don’t need to pack to fulfil that purpose, so I leave all my belongings and start walking. I almost bounce as I walk, I feel so light and brimming with life. The extra holes that have appeared over my arms and upper body are each plugged by a dark head. They look like moles, or beauty spots. They are beautiful to me, these little entrances and their guards. This first night I realise I no longer feel the cold. Thousands of tiny generators keep me warm from the inside out. I walk until my legs warn me they are about to give up, then find a park with some trees to shelter beneath. I wake up on a bare patch of earth feeling satiated, drink greedily at a water fountain and keep going. The second night I find a nicer park. I’m still in the city, but moving through a richer area near the river. I’m awakened by an unsympathetic boot. “You can’t sleep here,” says a policeman. “Looks like you were lying on an ant nest anyway.” He and his partner haul me to my feet and try to brush me down. I panic for a moment, I don’t want to leave so many of my tiny wards behind, alone in this park. At my panic I feel movement on my skin, liquid jets squirt into each of the two faces near mine. An acrid whiff makes my eyes sting and water, but it’s nothing compared to the reaction of the two police. They release me and drop, curling up with hands in their eyes. The smell calls to the workers on the ground, and they swarm back to me. Their militant siblings stand agitated guard, waiting for trouble, ready to fire again. We are gone before the policemen recover. We escape the city, but find farms instead. There is so little wild land now where we could be safe. The threat of people and pesticides surrounds me. I will keep going. I will keep them safe. I feel a message of satisfaction from within, pride at my determination. Later, how much later I no longer know nor care, I roll along a pine needle carpet between dense, straight trunks. My thousands of mouths reach out to the world around us. I keep them, and they keep me. Company, safety, home. They are all within and without me. I see no people, but we are not lonely. The post PseudoPod 754: Flash on the Borderlands LV: The Easily Digested Hurt appeared first on PseudoPod.
42 minutes | a month ago
PseudoPod 753: The Boulevardier
Author : David Stevens Narrator : Halloween Bloodfrost Host : Alasdair Stuart Audio Producer : Marty Perrett Discuss on Forums “The Boulevardier” originally appeared in the anthology Love Hurts, from Meerkat Press. Each of the neighbours the boulevardier refers to in this story have appeared in their own published tales, as have others who live around the gully he refers to. David coincidentally lives across the street from a very similar gully, frequented by wallabies, goannas, echidnas and the occasional snake. His neighbours may be odd, but not quite as odd as the boulevardier. The Boulevardier by David Stevens My love, … I sit on your floor. The silk wrapped bodies sway as though a zephyr blows, their feet tracing the darkness just above my head. The chatterer has ceased for now. He kept it up for hours though, barely audible, much less discernible. He has ceased his attempts to communicate, his attention no longer on the outside world. Something in his interior has caught his attention. I wait patiently. I can wait forever. However, as the mock zephyr becomes a faux breeze, and the movements of the bodies grow quicker, less regular, your need, my love, grows urgent. I am tired, I am hurt, but I am oh so excited. Expectation fills me as I wait to see what will pass. A splash of cologne – a hint of rose, with lavender and vanilla notes (I am going through a non-citrus phase) – and I am ready to head out. My wife and daughter were already gone when I arrived home. Celia will soon celebrate her first Holy Communion, and Clothilde is escorting her to preparation classes this week. It is an exciting time for Celia, and for all of us. The class is also an excuse for me to freshen up and head out again without delay or distraction. My wife understands me. There is no self-pity here of some state I have fallen into, of a marriage that does not suit. That is not the problem. My wife understands me very well. She understands that I have certain capacities that are beyond her ability to engage. Though she would not admit it (for she would never speak of such things), I suspect that my abilities disgust her. That is not the point. We love each other dearly, and mostly we are compatible. It is just that I have a plug for which she has no socket. I do not speak of genitalia. I have told you we have a daughter. We have given nature and the good Lord many, many opportunities to visit other children upon us, however they have declined the invitation. I do not wish to be crude, however I do not want you to mistake my coyness here. Do you mind that I speak so openly of my wife? I would be nothing but honest with you my love, even if it wounds you. Yes, as you have wounded me. She is very important to me and I love her dearly and would not disrespect her by hiding her from view like an embarrassment. What then of you? You are of an entirely different category. You transcend genre. There are places even in this provincial city where a gentleman can exert his capacities. They are not difficult to find if you have a nose for them. I choose not to seek them out close to home – prying eyes, you know – and frankly one likes to make an occasion of it. Dress up a little and get away from the humdrum for a few hours. I drive for a while, then park at random. I mark the spot on the map on my phone and set off walking. It would not do to have the car associated with where I end up. A boulevardier, I stare into the well-lit shopfronts as though admiring the wares on display, but it is my own reflection that I seek to catch. A bow tie is out of fashion, but I think I carry it off. I adjust my jacket and the strap of my satchel and continue. A convivial buzz of chatter and activity rises. I turn the corner onto a row of restaurants. I slow my pace as though I belong (which I do), fix my smile. This may do another evening, but I sense a louder hubbub further on. Bodies spill from the public house across the street. I keep in the shadows, knowing the catcalls (and worse) I can attract from the plebs, roused into even lower states of intelligence by a night of drinking. I grow closer to my goal. There, a block from the pub. Not one, but three. A voice booms: “One chicken large femly chips chicken salt Greek salad”. Kebabs. Charcoal Chicken Fish ‘n’Chips. And a darkened café. An hour later I pass by again. It is a weeknight, and now all three establishments are closed. A lone cat that should be able to find plenty to keep it occupied miaows as I pass it, entering the alley next to the kebab dispensary. The laneway is narrow. No garbage truck would ever be able to pass down here. Which means all the rubbish is stored loose round back until collection night, when some poor soul has to cart it all around the front. I follow the curve of the lane then stop. Unmoving, a plump rat sitting next to my tassled loafer confirms my hopes. Its colleagues run along the edges – the gutter, the intersection of wall and path, the fence line. The ripe aroma blossoms in my nostrils, fills the back of my throat. The scent mixes with my saliva and becomes ambrosia that I suck down. There is an order to be followed. I remove a ball peen hammer from my satchel and tack a few nails into a line mortar of the back wall of the café. I pull out wire hangers (they suffice for present purposes) and a suit bag, and lay a towel on the ground. It is but a few minutes work to remove and carefully stow my clothing, taking care with the creases. All valuables go into the satchel. After I undress, I change out of my skin. I turn. Rustling bags of the stuff. Loose lidded bins. Days it has been waiting here. Fly blown and maggot spotted, an entire urban eco-system of decomposition. Naked, erect, overwhelmed with nostalgie de la boue, I dive in. An amuse-gueule of rotting fish head pops in my mouth and I suck it down. I slime through fish guts, lick from a disposed fat tray, distinguishing chicken, lamb and beef, with remnants of hommos and tabouli. Coffee grounds are a nuisance when there are mounds of grease-soaked refuse to work through, long festering chicken discards and stinking raw hamburger patties to be embraced. I roll, I sluice, I embrace, I yearn, I quiver, I release. It enters me, it leaves me, I dive in it like a sporting seal, a dolphin rollicking in a sea of muck and filth. Now a shark, I burrow after and catch a fleeing rat in my teeth and crunch down, and at its squeals its fellows all disperse, leaving me to swallow down their comrade, my jaws unhinging to take it in fur and bones and tail and all. Turned milk, rancid salad, the stench of a billion farting bacteria released as I aerate the pile with my body. It is my delight. My pleasure and my fulfilment. I have come across a treasure trove, an Aladdin’s cave. I chew, suck, squelch, swallow, snort, breathe, imbibe. The liquids, the crusts, remnants, spoils, pools, paps, bubbles, spills. The broken down, the degenerating, and all that lives on it, the pupae and eggs and worms and burrowers. The soft and the crunchy, the mush and the cracking. That is why I do not hear them as they approach. Why I do not notice as they stand over me. They have been roving the newspapers and tabloid news for weeks, identified only by the remains they leave behind. Incinerated homeless men. They see only a man-sized shadow in the darkness, a disgusting derelict sleeping in a pile of shit. An alcohol crazed loony with the DTs, flopping uncontrollably in crap. I see nothing. Not even as they fire their industrial sized water guns, the type normally reserved for armed combat in swimming pools. Perhaps I noticed something damp between my plates, but I doubt it, immersed and distracted as I was. It was not until the first licking of flames that I reacted, and that unconsciously. Instinctively I rolled into a ball, and the armour covered my body. The spirits burned out quickly, and the rubbish pile was not exactly a great source of fuel. They still stood there laughing as I unfurled and stood. In the dark, blinded by the fire, they could not make out what had happened. No doubt they were used to seeing bodies curl as muscles burned and contracted, ligaments pulling limbs round so that their victims bunched up in their death throes. They were busy chalking up an addition to their score. There were aspects of myself I had not yet chosen to display. They did not notice. I, now that I was aware, roused from my feasting, I saw everything. The mouth I revealed then is round, a sphincter hole of spined teeth. I took half the face from the first hooligan, and he dropped and screamed, grabbing at a remnant of cheek. I crushed his larynx with a downward thrust of my heel, and after a wheeze or two, the noise stopped. The second ran, but I was on him in a flash, covering him with my soft underbelly where each individual muscle went to work, turning solid into liquid, releasing his insides as easily as I split garbage bags swollen with the gases of decomposition. How quickly pleasure becomes a chore when it is forced upon us. That which we would have delighted in a moment earlier grows tedious beyond belief when it is a necessity rather than an indulgence. I processed the two corpses. I do not seek to disgust, so I shall speak only in generalities. I rendered the boys, so that their remains could not be discerned from the general muck and ruin. In the morning, it would appear only that dogs had got into everything, and the greatest impact would be the cursing of the fellows who had to clean it up. The homeless of the city would not know they could sleep more safely. It was only when I started on the third body that I realised I had only killed two of them. When I lifted his head by the hair, a neat flap displayed itself at the throat. I had been aided by an unknown benefactor. Someone had been in the alley with me, someone of skill and talent, at one with the shadows. Only then did I lift my gaze and see your silhouette in the window, my love. Would I want my daughter to take up with someone like me? She of golden curl, so much like her mother. I dote on her. No one will be good enough for her. No local hoon, no sophisticate wastrel. Do you suggest there is something wrong with me? My family are cared for, they are safe, they live in love and relative comfort. They are fiercely protected. I can avoid the question. There is no one like me. You can point to my cocooned acquaintances, but they are not me. They failed. They succumbed. They did not act with deliberation, they were led. If you falter, she is la belle dame sans mercy. She will not hesitate; she will show no regret. To pierce is her nature, and she will not betray it. Dear Celia. Why would you think she is not at least a little like me? I will spare you the details of my return home. It is well practiced. The satchel contains compact microfibre towels and an excellent cleaning product. It is not long before I retrace my steps in a business-like fashion. The end of the evening has wiped away any smile. There is no post petite mort reverie. Somewhere along the way I dispose of a few bags of my own rubbish, far from the scene and away from my house. My differences are kept from the gaze of the hoi polloi. Sleep does not come easily, and it is a reluctant guest, not remaining long. From the second-floor balcony, I can see over the houses to a gully at the end of the suburb. Trees blow in the wind, puddles of darkness shifting across each other, competing depths of black. Something beckons there, as it does from time to time, something rotting in the bush, but I am long practised in resisting any siren in my neighbourhood. What could it be? A poisoned dog or a stricken wallaby, nothing to be excited about. My neighbours sleep. Brian and Janice and their kids and dogs. Charlotte and John, now he’s back from the war or wherever he was. George and … Mrs George, taking their photographs, a dose of morphine to get him through the small hours, no doubt a glass of something for her. None of them could begin to imagine the hurricane blowing through my mind, the raging spiralling thoughts. With all due respect, none of them are capable of the delicacy of feeling that leads to the emotional maelstrom within me. I am in love. The day passes. I head off directly from work without returning home. The clouds are low and night will come early, and while darkness is not necessary, it seems appropriate. I do not dandify myself tonight, I simply throw a herringbone coat (a knock off Burberry) over my suit, pop on a trilby, and head off. Someone has been busy shovelling. The rubbish has been tidied away, double bagged, the ground hosed and swept. Good job. The rats have not returned. They will. They are unsettled, but creatures of habit driven by appetite, they will return. They have nothing to fear from me. Tonight, I come only as a voyeur, I am no habitué of any one locale. I like novelty. I stare at your window. Eventually, the light is switched on. I stand at your door. There are three locks. I understand your message. Only three. If you did not want me to come in, there would be more. If you had not wished to be seen, there would have been no silhouette the night before. My limbs are flexible. Ductile and malleable as well. I unbutton my shirt and waistcoat, and release several of them through my flesh. What is skin but something to be pierced? I close my eyes and feel my way through the keyholes. What is resistance but something to be overcome? What is force but something to be exerted? Tumblers tumble, barrels shift, and I am inside. An art deco lamp stands a little back from the window, a bare breasted helmeted Amazon holding the beacon that gives off the glow that shadowed you last evening. Drinks rest on top of a walnut cabinet. The wood is gorgeous and warm in the lamplight. Invited by the crystal waiting for me, I lift the glass and swirl. Did my colleagues fall at this first hurdle? I too wish to taste you, to drink of you, but not this particular fluid. It is too soon. It would be right for such a boorish act to be punished with paralysis. Is this what led to their imprisonment, their silk swathing? (They dance now, you know, and sing too, a muffled murmuring moan escaping them.) The drink untouched I replace the glass, though I enjoyed its heft in my hand. The Bakelite radio is entrancing. Thick brocaded curtains. I am reminded of visits with my grandmother, to one of her grander friends. A picture coalesces in my mind, a thousand coloured points merging to bring clarity from a Monet fog. I observe your possessions. You have been searching a very long time. I bend to examine your exquisite Dresden figurines, and that is when you strike. It is a lucky hit, finding a join between the plates, for no subsequent blow strikes home as it did. The barb tore as it left my flesh. My admiration increased, that you did this in a room filled with your treasures. You have the right values. Objets, no matter how precious, are simply that: things. You risked them all to express your nature, and what could be more important than that? A dedication to truth such as I possess is not a devotion to wounding, though wound I often must in telling that truth. However, when to wound is your nature, as it is yours, you must not hold back. I say that as one who has had to learn not to hide what is within, but rather to give it the form which is appropriate to this world. It is my hope though that we can go beyond this, that we may transcend these expressions of our deepest being, going beyond the shallow definitions of predator and prey to find a new nature together. But if that is not to be, well then, perhaps in another lifetime. You are fast. You are magnificent. Your dance is striking, literally so. You thrust, advance, strike, step, strike, swirl, strike. I enter into it with you. You are barely visible, a shadow in a gossamer peignoir, an armed rumour. If the others had not fallen earlier, this is where you would have had them. As I lie here now, I look up at the chatterer. Beneath his wrappings, I make out the impression of his moth like wings, bound and crushed now against his back. As he shivers, fragments flake down. What could he have done? Flapped back feebly as you tore at the cotton of him? Now he finally has substance, granted by the silk with which you have encased him, at last a true skin. I hit back. Would you expect anything less? Would you respect me if I did not? You connect, but you no longer pierce. It is a very long time since anyone had your measure, I suspect. The plates hold you off. My limbs are replaceable. In my excitement I burp, and a gaseous by product of last evening’s feast escapes. Do not deny it, I see you react to my perfume. You falter, and my teeth catch, leaving a love bite that will take a long time to fade. In case you do not recognise it, my gaping mouth hole is a smile. In the end it is a trick, you must admit. I suppose I must admire your desperation, but I confess to a little disappointment. You trip me, and I fall onto my wounded shoulder. Instinct forms me into a ball, then you push and roll me through a secret door. I could never have known it was there. There can be no cheating in life as there are no rules, but this leaves a bad taste. After all the effort I made not to damage your possessions. I am up and on my feet, charging, but you slam the door shut. You are afraid. That is understandable. You have never met one like me, and your search has gone on a long time. How many when they find their heart’s desire, recoil? The long search has been everything. The fear that it is now over, that life must change, that is a great shock. I am the culmination of it all, and you are afraid. I am not so sanguine at first. But my emotions are understandable as well. I am hurt, angry. I do not like to be trapped; this is not a natural situation for me either. I rage and yell. I will be missed, you know. The Holy Communion meeting will not last forever. Soon my wife shall return home. And if she does not raise the alarm tonight, she will in the morning. By tomorrow evening at the latest! But in time, I calm. I sit with my two companions, though they are not great company. Tall dark and silent (he reminds me of a grass hopper, all legs and no brain) hooked to my right, the murmuring moth to my left. This room is old and purpose built. The hooks are on a rail set into the ceiling, and of solid construction. Despite myself, I am impressed. I did not despair. My mind turned to deeper things. I meditated upon them, and they gave me comfort. God is a spider. In the end, He consumes us all, and nothing is lost. Passing through the purgatory of venom, in His infinite abdomen we shall all be reduced to our essential selves, vanity stripped away, all meshed together. We shall be revealed to each other as we truly are, and that shall be Heaven. There is nothing for it but to lie here. I am well feasted from last night. After our struggle, I can do with a rest. My wound will heal, or it will not. I suspect it shall, I am a tough old bird. Though I do not like to be contained, I am in no rush. As my companions shudder and gasp despite their paralysis, things are becoming a little more urgent for you. Stains spread on silk wrappings, blood and something else. Parts of my friends begin to move independently, and then their garments start to split. It is not an unfamiliar noise. A worrying at the joint of a leg of lamb. A post-mortem parting of weakened flesh. Chewing, definitely the sound of chewing. With a plop as she hits the floor, the first of your daughters emerges. She is blind but she smells me and raises her maws in my direction. A playful kick sends her squealing to the door, leaving a placental trail behind. She is wary of me now, but there is no time for that. The second arrives, and they are shaping up to each other, rising off the floor on as yet untested limbs. They are like baby gazelles in a room with a lion, if that is gazelles had teeth as long as their legs and a propensity to attempt to eat their siblings on being born. You are too well prepared. I do not think you are the sort of mother who would let nature take its course. You would have had a plan to separate them, no doubt, but I have interfered with that. Number three falls onto my head and bounces off, but the tang of afterbirth is in my nostrils now. It is in your nature to wound; it is in mine to feast. You do not know me well enough. I do not know me well enough. The great cats, the minor apes, all the males who will on taking a mate destroy the offspring of his predecessor. I can rise above that, I think. No, I am sure, that is, sure I can do so within the bounds of a committed relationship. However, lying wounded in a locked room beneath these shivering near corpses as your daughters chew their way out… I do not know myself sufficiently, to anticipate how well I can continue to control myself in this situation. We are both to learn a lesson, I suspect, but you may have a little more invested in the outcome than me. What risks will you take? You must come. Your children are here. I am safe from them. Are they safe from me? You cannot know. My love, she will come. My love, what surprises we still hold in store for each other. 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43 minutes | a month ago
PseudoPod 752: It Rises From Between My Bones
Author : Donna J. W. Munro Narrator : Sandra Espinoza Host : Karen Bovenmyer Audio Producer : Marty Perrett Discuss on Forums PseudoPod 752: It Rises From Between My Bones is a PseudoPod original. Cancer, Chemotherapy It Rises from Between My Bones By Donna J. W. Munro Sitting on the toilet for the first sleepy morning pee, I felt my ovaries twist as a little piece of me trying burst through in a micro-explosion of tissue, born into my desert of a womb. It made no sense. I sat staring at my bald head and face in the mirror hanging across from the toilet. If I weren’t the one making my features screw up in twisting confusion it would have been hilarious. Chemo makes your face strange. No hair. Not one brow or lash. It’s like looking at one of those big-eyed aliens that the tabloids are forever finding, autopsying, and giving breathless reports about probes and pregnancies. I looked just like that only not so green and way more dumbfounded. How could my ovaries be spitting out an egg? I’d been in a chemically induced menopause since this whole mess started. Since I’d found that little lump in the same place they’d found Mom’s so many years ago. My whirlwind started in the office of the doe-eyed technician running the ultra-sound. She’d murmured in positive little half notes until her hand froze. She stopped and pulled the wand out of my armpit, glooped on more warmed gel that honestly felt like it had been harvested from inside a body cavity instead of the little bottle warmer next to her keyboard. Then she said, “Oh.” And typed little rapid-fire notes, pausing to press the wand into my armpit again and then tut about it quietly. “Let me just step out and get the doctor.” The doctor at the women’s health center is usually a woman with a kind smile and a cheery disposition. I’m sure this doctor usually had a smile like that, only that’s not what I saw while I laid there on the table, greased up and naked in my middle-aged, sagging skin suit. Her smile strained at the corners like it would crack. “Let’s take a look.” She scanned it and with a thin needle, she punctured my skin to pull out a sample from my armpit and from my right breast. “It’s probably nothing,” she said with her overly tight smile. We both knew she was lying. Two weeks, a positive identification for malignancy, and every kind of test, scan, or examination I could imagine and I had my diagnosis. Stage II b breast cancer, just like Mom. My treatment? Lots of chemo, then radiation, and after… Well, we didn’t really talk about the after. My cancer’s poison? Azithromycin. The red death they call it. We pumped it into my port every other Thursday, directly into my bloodstream. No I.V. line into a vein because if that stuff held up in your arm, it would… I don’t know. They never told me, but I imagined the stalking villain of Poe’s Masque of the Red Death swimming through my veins, ripping through my viscera with a flaming sword. They pushed a fat needle through my soft upper breast into the lump of a port lying there like a buried tombstone under my white and blue veined skin. The flush of saline that washed into my tastebuds was the bitter bite of plague spreading through me, only the poison wasn’t meant for me. It was for the true invader growing inside a duct of my breast and bursting through the walls, dotting my lymph nodes with little clones. When the hair on my head fell out a week after the first treatment, I lost every other hair on my body, too. My husband Matt laughed and said, “Now you don’t have to worry about shaving your legs or your pits.” I laughed, but when I looked in the mirror, I was looking into the eyes of a stranger stooped from the weakness that the chemo created. Haunted eyes. I didn’t want to die. Not then, anyway. I loved my life teaching high schoolers about ancient civilizations and living with my Matt, my handsome husband and best friend. But the shadows of my mother and father’s deaths had always lay across our happiness, a cloud that blocked our sun. And now I was living the nightmare. I was a bald-headed, chemo brained beast with a puckered set of scars where they’d cut the tissue out of me. Under the scars, bulbous expanders stretched my chest muscles until they ached. Every system of my body, so firmly in my control before the cancer, became another bit of collateral damage sacrificed to my cure. My skin grew dry and thin as tissue paper. Brown patches appeared on my arms and face like blotchy burns. My doctors shrugged and told me I’d be covering those with foundation for the rest of my days. My stomach rejected everything I loved, then still managed to either bind up my bowels or turn them into a liquid hot mush that would leave me panting and fevered every time I went to the bathroom. And the scars. So many scars. So many little deaths in my body. All things meant to save me. That’s why sitting on the toilet in the morning of my sixth round of chemo, I was stunned to feel my ovaries, dead for months inside my belly, pulse to life with a heartbeat all their own. I hissed as the pain throbbed outward, clentching and shooting until I shuddered. The other foot soldier symptoms Major-General Cancer visited on my body hadn’t wrenched such pain from me. I felt it push its way forward in my left side, a tiny swimming stone. Then the rip that curled me into a pink ball on the toilet, clutching myself together like it might blow me apart. It was everything I’d felt every twenty-eight days since I’d gotten my first visit from “monthly Martha” at age 11. All that, as they say, and a bag of chips. The normal burst of pain I’d felt every month, but like my ovary knew it would never get another chance. Like it had a show to put on. Too much pain to scream, besides I didn’t want my sweet husband to have another ugly image in his mind to go along with the memories of drains weaving like pale vines in and out of puckered, puss-filled holes in my skin or the fatty, ripped incision he’d taped together to get me to the urgent care. Around the pain, I knew this was something I had to bear alone. Most women do. It took ten minutes to tear out of its pod. By the time I could stand, sweat poured from my body and I shivered inside my tightening skin. I turned the shower on as hot as I could take and stood with my head down and arms braced as the little ball bounced around in my uterus, looking for purchase. I expected it to be born that minute in a gush of red blood that would circle the drain and be done. But no. It settled in. Burrowed. All day I felt its roots clutching at me. Making coffee, a cramp twisted through my pelvis. I winced as it cut into the soft bed of skin that hadn’t had a blood lining in months. “What’s wrong, honey?” Matt asked around his Grape Nuts. He’s fast. Always has been. When I looked at him and sucked up a hard breath, he was out of the chair. My eyes went back into my head and that’s when he caught me. It took a good bit of time for me to come back to myself. He said he’d put me on the couch and that I’d moaned and cried in my sleep. When I woke up, the sky was blue and my pain was gone. I pressed against the soft swell of my belly and there was no tenderness. No shooting, stabbing pain. I thought, maybe it was just another one of those personal hells that come with fighting against a tumor. Another indignity that the doctor would note in the computer for posterity, nodding and mumbling some shit about how each thing was to be expected. Who wrote their scripts? I didn’t have words for the other bald skeletons that wandered through the waiting room of the cancer center. We were all hollowed out and skin stretched over bones by the treatment that killed the vile little bits of us that were out of control. The fast growers die first. The hairs, then the nails, then the tumors. Sometimes the tooth enamel. Sometimes other things I didn’t know I could lose. One time I spit out something so thick with blood, it was black. A lump of ooze against the white of the sink that wouldn’t wash down. I braced myself with one arm, knowing that some things made me stumble. I reached a trembling finger down and touched it as my stomach roiled in the middle of me. In my head I heard something keening so sad, so wetly. I pushed my fingers into the clot and it mashed like a grape. It had been inside me minutes before and now I smeared it against the petri dish of my sink bowl, looking at the pieces. A red circle striated with a sickly dark yellow. A black coned chunk. A flattened orb that had oozing tendrils trailing from it like roots. An eye. The thing twitched. Contracted as I leaned in and poked it once more. Matt knocked on the door as I threw up all over the sink, the mirror, myself. He helped me back into the shower, eyes averted as I tried to cover my scars with my hands. He has the patience of a saint. After the morning’s dose of chemo, he brought me home and wrapped me gently in a blanket on the couch. Sometimes when I laid there, I watched him out of the corner of my eye. How could he love me with these things growing inside me? He hadn’t married those out of control cells trying to take me over. Did he see the fight as a noble struggle? Did the idea of my own cells trying to kill me repulse him? Keep him up at night? It did me. I dozed there under the blanket with the local news playing the background soundtrack to my personal hell. I heard the silver-haired anchor reporting the surge in rare and virulent cancers around old war factories, the places where early caches of uranium and plutonium disappeared after WWII. Buried, he said, in fields where kids played ball, next to creeks like the one where my cousins and I picked crawdads from under rocks to boil and eat for lunch. That they glowed didn’t matter to me and my cousins. Their mother died of breast cancer too, only thirty-four years old. Only two years younger than me. That night, after Matt tried to get me to eat some mashed potatoes that I threw up immediately, he helped me up the stairs. He’d put me in bed and propped me up on pillows and he’d made love to me with such a sweet slowness. I don’t know how he could touch me as I was. After he fell into a humming snore, the warm buzz of his attentions melted into a tightness. An awareness. My skin didn’t fit around my bones and those bones seemed to dislike being inside me anymore. I felt like I’d turn inside out with the heat that rose from my middle. Not a good heat. Not lusty satisfaction, no. It was a fire that burned away at me. Crisped me. And inside I felt the hard pieces that moved like pebbles in my veins. Sleep, voices inside told me. Sleep is healing. Sleep is the only way to be strong enough. But sleep gave the pieces of me that revolted inside my body the peace they needed to wrap themselves around my organs. Little boa constrictors crushing my lungs with rippling muscular hugs. Squeezing my heart. I felt them moving through the secret passages inside me. Growing. Pushing. I put my hand on the softness of my belly, the sag of my age that bubbled there. The pads of my fingers rested on the smoothness of my skin and I tapped my fingers in a rolling rhythm, the memory of a song that we’d sung when I was a kid playing with my cousins in the rippling lake our grandmother took us to every week. The muddy water and the creaking gray dock all seemed so fantastic, so not of this world. I remember them daring me to swim under the dock and weave my way through the crossbeam gaps that existed between the joists. I ducked in so brave and then the echoing drips and the bulbing gray insulation stuck out in lumps floating along the edges of the joists sent me back under the water trying to escape, but under the water’s surface down became up and I kept reemerging in the closed universe under the dock. I wept in there. Screamed for my cousins to come and get me. They watched me through the cracks and dropped little rocks down on me. The slick wood I clung to had green hairs of seaweed coating it like the fur of an animal and the waves lifted and lowered the dock in respiration. I don’t remember Grandma jerking me out from under the dock, but she carried me up onto the grass weeping. My cousins said that I’d disappeared so they didn’t get a spanking. That they couldn’t see me. Grandma tanned their asses good for lying. But I knew it was true. I had disappeared. It was another world and I’d slipped into it sideways. What was happening inside of me now felt just like that. My leg muscles refused to settle and my toes weren’t connected to my feet. Neuropathy. The death of my nerves made no sense. I couldn’t feel my toes, but the flickering pains that shot up my calves were real enough. Beneath my fingers, my belly moved in a rolling wave, first right and then left. Something under my skin rose, pushing against my fingertips. A caress with skin keeping us apart. The first time I’d felt the rising lumps under my skin, I’d wondered if the cancer was blooming like flowers inside me, lumping up and following the heat of my fingers. I’d gone into the bathroom to try and see it in the light, maybe squeeze it like a pimple or lance it. When it screamed, I blacked out and hit my head on the toilet. A trip to the emergency room and Matt was telling the doctor that I’d been rambling about things inside my skin. “Chemo does strange things to the mind. Just keep her still and hydrated, ice on the bump. She’s got a concussion, but it’s a mild one. Call the oncologist in the morning,” the E.R. Doc had said. I didn’t try to lance lumps anymore. There were too many of them anyway. I did wonder if they’d all come from my ovaries, birthed when I’d been sleeping or in the cloud of codeine the doc gave me after the double mastectomy. Little baby tumors making their way to soft secret places between my cells. Between my bones. Matt asked me how I’d slept each morning and if I needed anything every night. I’d learned to say no. The time between the course of chemo blurred into moments of bloody gums and constipation, vomit and diarrhea, and of course the traveling lumps that grew and receded by the hour. The doctors changed the chemical poison to Taxol and my legs became so weak I sometimes had to crawl on all fours to the bathroom. I didn’t even try to sleep with Matt upstairs since each stair rise was a mountain I couldn’t climb and my legs gyrated restlessly all night long. They didn’t belong to me anymore. At night, the darkness changes the world you’ve built so carefully. Every curated item in your home sharpens, echoes inside itself. For me, watching the change from my warm home, bright walls, happy art, cherished books, and overstuffed couches into monster movie reproductions splashed in deep and swimming shadow. The difference bloomed in the night until I wasn’t in my lovely house anymore. And the things inside me grew bigger then, feeding on my fear or feeding it. It felt like they were stretching me from inside out, creating empty spaces. I split in two. There was the rational dweller of the real world who’d fight cancer like a badass, survive to wear ridiculous pink outfits and walk in survivor parades for the rest of her life. Then there was the night dwelling traveler, the cocoon for whatever was growing inside. The little girl who’d slid sideways into a world she didn’t understand. We went to the oncologist the next day. “The tumors are…” the oncologist took a deep breath and then rushed on into his bad news script, “spreading. Multiple sites including your brain. Your bones.” Matt squeezed my hand and sobbed, leaning in to catch the doctor’s words. Searching for hope. “Four lesions and one deep tumor in the mid-brain…” He pointed to cloudy shadows on the grey film. “And the lungs…” Big blooming tumors clustered in the bottom of the lobes. “And the stomach…” And that’s when I let myself slide. Turns out that when you grow darkness inside you, you are the doorway. I pressed the fingers of my free hand against my middle, feeling the movements within, and curled up around myself. Matt squeezed my hand again, but he’d given himself over to understanding the doctor’s prognosis. I hated to leave him alone there, but I didn’t think I could manage one more second of the rational cancer warrior losing the fight for her life. The lying side I faced out to the world collapsed when I saw those clusters and shadows inside me. I slid down into myself, feeling the alienness of what lived there in the spaces between my insides. The echoes in between the rafters of bones and the shimmering lake of fluid. Waving cilia like fur coated the pathways. And hanging from every edge, every crossroad inside me were the bulging gray growths. Tumors they’d called them. But here, they had tendrils that whipped and throbbed, wrapping around my honeycombing bones, growing like a poisonous vine into the flesh of my organs. My body their birthing chamber. I didn’t scream. Not anymore. Looking at the horror in my flesh felt like facing my own truth. Like it was what I should have done all along. I reached out with my limb, not a hand exactly. A phantom of a hand like appendage wavered like a misty and unformed idea. But when that hand stroked the gray flesh of one of the invaders, I felt it with more surety than the neuropathy dulled flesh of my real body could feel in our reality. My imagined world’s fingertips had healthy nerves and receptors not damaged by poison. The flesh, slick under my fingers, warmed to my touch, hummed under the pressure of it. From the center of the lumpy, gelatinous body, an eye as red as an angry wound and shot with bright yellow highlights, opened with a slow flowing retreat of the thing’s flesh. I’d woken it up. All around me, I felt the weight of eyes turning. All the invaders fixed me with their united gaze, though some were as far away from me as the earth from the moon. They were many and they were one. They were in me. My bones grew them. My cells became them. My blood fed them. They were me. Inside my mind or the consciousness that held me in this place, a buzzing vibrated from inside to out. A voice of wings made of hairs and shells and bitter taste. A voice that burbbled through that red-eyed gaze. These things in me, my disease or my monsters- I don’t really know- they did know things. They were the crack in the door I needed to understand. The threshold. I was the door that had to open. The nearest one grabbed for me, desperation rippling around it in a pheromonal stink. Its tendril reached, lance-like and tipped with a tooth. It wanted me but— “Are you okay?” Matt pulled me to him, yanking me free. He pressed me against his skin and I burrowed my face into the space between his jacket and his tee-shirt, sobbing. Keening with a darkness that poured from inside out. My voice and their voices screamed in concert. Matt must have thought I was mourning my diagnosis-terminal and only weeks to live. He clutched me to him so hard I heard his heart beating. I heard the blood swishing in its chambers. There were no echoes inside of him. The doctor gave me a prescription for sleeping pills and a sad smile and sent us home with brochures about home health aides and hospice care. Matt cried without sound, gripping the steering wheel and glancing at me. For the first time, his eyes filled with the future. The real future where he’d be alone and have to make all those decisions that I usually made for the both of us. Where he’d bring up the laundry and I wouldn’t be there to fold it. Where he’d cook dinner and do the dishes too. The partnership had already stopped with my illness, but now he knew that I was just an incubator for the death that grew day by day and that he’d be left alone. That was the rational world. I started talking as he drove because I knew he’d only sort of hear what I needed to tell him. That he’d let it go because too much reality filled his mind. “I’m not really dying, Matt. I’m growing little monsters.” “Tumors,” Matt said. He was used to my flights of fancy. It’s how I talked. How I thought. “Not tumors. They are little monsters that I made. I didn’t mean to. I…I know you can’t understand this, but I ate poison when I was little. Swam in dioxin and radiated creeks. My dad brought home flakes of asbestos and served it up like salt on dinner when he’d shake it free from his coat.” He’d slowed the car because the rush hour traffic piled up on the highway in front of him. He glanced over at me with disquiet in his puffy red eyes. “This is the breast cancer. You heard, Doctor–” “Listen to me. I’m the doorway. I know it now. Cancer is just the cutting tool. The thing that makes the door come open.” He reached for me, probably readying a beautiful lie about fighting the inevitable. About how strong I was. “Don’t.” I jerked back, banging my head into the window with a clunk. I didn’t even feel it. “Look.” I held up my hands in the long space growing between us. Pink and fleshy, my hands hung there in the slanting light but a gray corona of shadow that shouldn’t exist in the bright afternoon shimmered around them. “I touched one of them. It told me how long they’ve tried to open a door. How hard they’ve worked to change us. To change the whole world.” I quieted then, giving my strength over to holding myself here. My eyes fluttered shut and I didn’t respond when he called my name. Inside, the pieces of me growing in the soup of poisons sang me into a stupor. They promised me so many things. That night, Matt gave me my pain pill and my sleeping pill and left the bottles out on the table. Maybe he thought it was a kindness to leave my life in my hands. We’d talked about it when my father had died, cancer in his colon, his lungs, and his brain. There had been black vomit and diapers and my poor Dad’s sad expression. He’d hated that we even had to take care of him. He said sorry when he soiled himself. Then my mother had laid in a nightmare she couldn’t wake from for twenty days. She moaned and tried to shift, but she was so weak then. In so much pain. I’d told Matt that I would want to kill myself if it got that bad. And here I was, just as bad as them and Matt had left the option on the table. Only, the cancer wasn’t just a ball of fast-growing cells. Someday, scientists might recognize that they’d been like the medieval medicine men with their bleeding and leeching. That they hadn’t recognized a bigger truth. A cosmic truth. That the disease was first contact. The next day, we went to the hospice office, then to the lawyer to sign my final wishes into reality. I held it together until the lawyer started talking about me in the past tense. I’m sure I only imagined it, but I started weeping and Matt hustled me to the car. In my ears, a choir of monsters sang. “Why me?” I whispered to the creatures inside. The me that was part of this place and part of the other spoke back in the buzzing that sounded like insect armor rubbing on itself. “You are the first to peek through the keyhole,” they said and didn’t say at the same time. “The first to synthesize poison without destroying your growths.” Growths, I heard, but it wasn’t quite the right translation. The idea behind the word was one I didn’t have words for. The idea flashed around in my head and I saw the creatures again, but behind them, through them and me and the toxic blood that held us together, I saw another world blooming right inside of my body. The things beyond that rectangle of space flowed through an orange burning sky, shaded by the brightness behind them. But the outlines made no sense in my mind. Massive limbs that didn’t flap or walk or touch any surface. Flagella so long and tangled there wasn’t any way to see their beginnings and ends at the same time. The expanse captured there was like a mirror you might look through sideways and see on into everything that wasn’t in front of it. A trick of optics, the scientists might say, but what did they know? Someday they might recognize… only they wouldn’t. They wouldn’t because– “Sweetie?” Matt shook me. We were home, car ticking away its heat and bright cement of the driveway solid under us. “You weren’t… there for a minute.” He stared, blue eyes wider than they should ever be. So much wonder, but not the kind you wanted. He wondered that the world you know could go sideways so fast. The wonder that exists beyond fear lay in his gaze. “I swear…” “I’m here. Just a trick of the light, I guess. Optics maybe?” I croaked, throat dry from the choking vision and the clawing silence I’d climbed out of. “Right,” he said. He hurried around the car and helped me out, waving off the kind offers of our neighbors for food or cleaning or even to give him a break to take a walk or a shower. Nice folks. It really was a shame. He got me set back up in my recliner, blanket cuddled around me. “There. A toasty burrito.” A sweet old joke. A groove in the well-worn record of our life. I smiled with my lips closed because I worried that the orange light peeking around the edges of the doorway inside of me might shine out through the spaces in my teeth, lighting them like bright, squared candy corns. I shouldn’t have worried about it. He didn’t want to be near me anymore and was starting to turn away. I wasn’t mad about it. He’d seen the shadow of what I was in the other place. I’d phased out and in right in front of him. “I’ll get dinner,” he said. I reached out so quickly you’d never have known I was dying. I caught his wrist in the cage of my fingers and pulled him so close I thought he might be able to smell the pheromones my monsters pumped into my bloodstream to challenge the others to come through. It was the final call. “Stay,” I said, clinging to him. I’ve always loved him. Since high school, through mullets and poverty and disappointment and joy we’d been inseparable. The perfect team. He be a part of this terrible thing with me, but I wanted to look into his eyes until I couldn’t anymore. I held his hand and felt him shudder, but he was the best man I’d ever known and I knew he’d stay because I wanted it. “They changed us,” I whispered, not clear if I had enough breath in the sound for him to hear. “They directed us to change. The pills and the pollution and the chemicals all came from their projections. I’m a projection now, Matt. Maybe since I swam in the lake as a kid. Maybe since the creek and the crawdads. Maybe they made me that way in my mom’s cancerous uterus.” I coughed a wrenching, wet cough that sprayed the changed blood all over my hands. I wiped the glowing orange stuff on the blanket over my legs and he watched with a gaping mouth and wet eyes. He didn’t move though. He must’ve thought I was dying. Not quite. “I’m the first, but there are more coming. I’m sorry, my love.” He shook his head and ran his hand through my hair. Our tears flooded our eyes as my doorway opened. Tears that boiled off his blistering cheeks. His hair crisped and curled as it burned. I wanted to stop, but I am what they made me. The fire bloomed outward from my body, each of the little spots the doctor called malignancies collapsed into voids and spaces. The me that was left inside, swung open as wide as my body and the whole sky. The others pressed and struggled to get through that space. It didn’t hurt. I was beyond the physical pain of stretching like a cosmic cervix giving birth to galaxies. My poor Matt didn’t know I watched his eyes until they dried up into glass. I held his skull until it turned to ash. I pressed the ash to my open frame, painting my lintel with the soft gray bits until they, too, burned away. Inside out or sideways, I’m the door. I’m the first one, but there are more coming. The post PseudoPod 752: It Rises From Between My Bones appeared first on PseudoPod.
47 minutes | a month ago
PseudoPod 751: As Well as the Infirm
Author : Scott Beggs Narrator : Premee Mohamed Host : Alasdair Stuart Audio Producer : Marty Perrett Discuss on Forums “As Well as the Infirm” was originally published in Dark Moon Digest, April 2020 From the author: “The title comes from a section in the Hippocratic Oath: ‘I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings, those sound of mind and body as well as the infirm.'” As Well As The Infirm by Scott Beggs $243,378 You get two shots at becoming a doctor after med school. If you match with a hospital straight off, bully for you, great job, give mom and dad a hug. If you don’t, you need to wait a year holding your breath while chopping off pig hooves for science even though you’re vegan. Then you pray you match the second time around. If you don’t, that’s it. You spent a quarter of a million dollars to disappoint your parents. That’s how I ended up taking a business card with only a phone number printed on it from a slick Wall Street-looking asshole with a bad cough while rounding my third shot of tequila. That’s also how I ended up covered in someone else’s blood in a knock-off Sesame Street bouncy castle, crushed by a murderer’s guilt and wondering if I’d survive to sunrise. All I ever wanted was to help people. My mother named me Jayanti, although people seem to relax when I tell them they can call me Jay. I’m as tall as my father was, and I’ve wanted to be a doctor since before my first training bra. The night before my dream died, Shondra, Mackie, and I got drunk playing Fuzzy Operation. You know the kids’ game. Tiny plastic maladies. Light up the patient’s nose, get buzzed, do a shot. I swirled my Lone Stars to make tiny cyclones in the bottles. I pulled the labels off in single, pristine pieces and thought solely of whether I would match to a hospital this time around. Second time lucky. Mackie kept zapping the funny bone, his long, dark fingers slipping at just the wrong moment. Shondra kept laughing like mad and pouring his Cuervo Gold. We got drunk and pretended the future wasn’t coming for us in the morning. We all avoided bringing up my fragile position until, following a sloppy group hug at the door, Mackie flashed his hundred-tooth smile and said, “Jay, if you don’t match, the system’s broken.” Well I didn’t match, the system’s broken, and I was fucked to the merry tune of $243,378. We would get together a few more times after that night, but never again without the cloying sensation that my friends were being plucked from me – drawn away to hospitals all over the country. Mackie was staying in Austin at Clemsy-Sebold, but we both knew the summer camp nature of residency meant he’d fade from my life while living five minutes away. Mackie. Squat and plump like a bodybuilder who only recently discovered pizza. Always shyly standing a few inches too close to me. Even he’d be pulled away. I was left alone, surrounded by the Styrofoam-laced smell of a take-out food world tour and a dozen books on internal medicine it made no sense to own. For weeks I held out hope that I’d get a call any moment to clear up a regrettable clerical error and head for the residency program I’d ground myself to dust to earn. That call never came, so I ordered more fried rice and spent an episode of The Great British Bake-Off screaming into a decorative pillow. I called my mom and cried. I sat alone on my living room rug and cried. Mackie came over with a sympathy fruit basket, and I cried. The system’s broken. The system’s broken. The system’s broken. My father lost his job as a civil engineer when I was a freshman in college. He avoided talking about it using conversational Tai Chi, deflecting to how the Cowboys were doing and whether I was keeping my grades up. But once, just once, he admitted it was like losing a loved one. But how was I supposed to mourn for a job I’d never had a chance to do? I felt dissected. On nights that I slept, I dreamt I was donating blood, but the nurse had disappeared so gallon after gallon drained from me until laughably small vials overflowed, and the floor slicked with shiny purple-red vitality. I fell to my knees in it, frantically sweeping it against my body as it flooded away from me with the force of inevitability. The caustic metal scent overwhelmed me. Even after I lost the last ounce my heart wouldn’t stop beating dry in my chest. When I made it through my first day without crying, I considered what I would trade to get a residency spot and realized that I had nothing left to give. I thought about shaving my head but chickened out. I crawled on my belly through a handful of the five stages of grief, and, thank God, never made it to Acceptance. On the morning of Shondra and Mackie’s graduation – a ritual I’d seethed through in a cap and gown a year before – I fixated on my six-figure student loan debt and had to find a bar, stat. That’s where Darden found me. Nimble and petite with a persistent cough and the scaly signs of seborrheic dermatitis at the corners of his mouth, he handed me a shot when I was already floating. His suit advertised the size of his bank account, and his floral cologne mixed poorly with the stale yeast smell of the bar, but his confidence was infectious. As if he had enough to let you borrow. “Your bartender friend there tells me you’re a med school student,” he said, sliding next to me uninvited. “Close. I already graduated. Who are you?” “You can call me Darden.” He motioned to the three upturned shot glasses. “I hope you don’t have rounds anytime soon.” “Ha! No. I will not have rounds, anytime soon, ever.” “You didn’t match?” “I’m an old pro at not matching. But I’m thinking the third time will be my lucky break. You a doctor?” That’s when he pulled out his business card. Plain white. Black ink. No name. Just a phone number. “Definitely not. Never had a sense of sacrifice bordering on self-hatred.” “Exactly!” I said with embarrassing enthusiasm. I took the card without thinking. “Sacrifice. Yes. Doctors smoke the most, sleep the least, memorize entire libraries. Man, I’ve read so many fucking books. Just destroy our bodies, you know. Destroy our bodies so that, what, everyone else can live just a little bit longer?” “And the debt. You must be swimming in it.” “Indentured servitude was my fall back, so it’s really not all bad.” He only grinned at that, which sunk me to a sober reality that made my stomach churn. I would die still owing on my student loan. “I’m a kind of middle man,” Darden said, coughing into his hand before retrieving his card and writing an address on it. “I’ve got an opportunity for you that could be very, very lucrative.” “I’m not flying to Dubai in my bikini, pal.” “That’s funny, but no. The job is more specific to your talents.” “Tell me.” I was suddenly aware of how quiet the rest of the bar was. “Do you know how many people die every day waiting for organ transplants, Jay?” Gutierrez Brothers Funeral Home was on the east side of the highway near an Iglesia Bautista, a neon-bathed corner shop, and rows of modest brick homes overlooking potholed streets, but everything was calm at midnight. I stood in front of the door in black scrubs feeling like a party clown at the wrong kid’s birthday. Could I go through with it? The heavy latch clicked, and Solomon Gutierrez beckoned me inside. He was an unfussy old man with a cataract squint and bad hips that forced him to waddle. His face was broadly wrinkled, wide with an easy smile, and his skin was dark and thin like he’d been baking in an oven on low heat his entire life. At the time, I thought that I crossed the threshold into the funeral home solely because of my debt, but I recognize now that I said yes because nothing else in my life was asking me to say anything at all. None of the furniture in the front room of the funeral home was made after the Korean War. It gave the impression of quaint comfort and probably reminded Solomon’s key demographic of toddling around Nana’s living room, but there was something off about it. It took me three sips of complementary herbal tea before realizing that there was too much light in the space. Clouds of fine particles swirled rampant through the air. I could feel the plush fabric of the settee fading, the fine oak of the coffee table drying out, and the pages of shelved books no one would ever read yellowing. I cringed at the exposure. A place like this needed a little darkness. Where there should have been a faint smell of mildew and sweat, there was only the sharp cut of fake vanilla that gave the parlor its showroom airs, threatening to expose the lie at the heart of it. Never mind the sofa enveloping you or the tinny clink of tea cups resurrecting a sweet memory, this was not your living room. It wasn’t anyone’s living room. It was where you paid a stranger to bury the person you knew best. “You must be proud of what you’ve built here,” I said, carefully placing my cup down on its gold-rimmed saucer. “Oh, yes. Very, very proud indeed,” Solomon replied, his voice sugar cane sweet. Before we could speak more, Darden burst in from a back room demanding joyously that we get the show on the road, jangling my nerves even further, and yanking me up from the sofa. The basement did not smell like vanilla. The fat old woman’s body lay on a gurney with a loose sheet draped over it. She was blue from whatever they were using to keep her cold, and her hair clung to her scalp as if someone had glued it on in a hurry. Beside her was a row of red coolers like you might take tailgating, filled with medical grade ice packs. I wanted to be horrified. Instead, I buzzed with how eager I was to hold a scalpel again. The sight of her brought a keen glaze of familiarity – the resuming repetition of my medical school cadaver studies – that steadied my nerves and, in that moment, gave me an activating purpose. Vintage Tejano music played on a crummy radio, and I cut into her belly. You won’t be able to imagine it. What they don’t show you on TV dramas is the physical strenuousness of surgery. All that sweat. It’s a marathon on your feet that requires complete, constant focus and an acrobat’s muscle control. Doctors lose pounds of body weight during procedures. Just like NASCAR. The kidneys, the heart, the liver, the lungs, the pancreas, the intestines, the thymus. The corneas were trashed, but everything else was in working order, and I felt the cool slimy heft of each part of her that I carved out imbuing me with a stirring sense of importance that I craved. But when it was done, when I shed that adrenalized cloak of purpose, I became aware of the scent of chemical-soaked skin, the forever stare of her eyes, the grays and blues and pinks and blacks of her insides. I started to wonder who she was, what she was like, who loved her. Why she had ended up here. It came in one strong wave. The metal of the gurney felt too slick, and my feet couldn’t quite find the floor. I doubled over, shoving the gurney with a linoleum screech just far enough to make the fat old woman’s hollow body flop a few inches toward the edge. Darden clamored back. I heaved into my mask, but nothing came up. “Okay, okay. You’ve worked your magic. Deep breaths. Deep. Breaths,” Darden said, holding out his hand to bring me to my feet. “Solomon can handle the scraps. Let’s get you some air.” Darden wouldn’t stop jackhammering his left knee as we sat in the booth at Magnolia Café. Small as he was, his nervous energy still tingled my Spidey sense. “It’s important to unwind after these things, so I come here for a tofu scramble and a slice of pie” he said between hacking coughs. I’d sat before with happy exhaustion at this café cramming for exams until sunrise, but after hearing that, I looked at each surrounding face – the skeletal hippie couple, the lonely scowl trapped under fat headphones, the hungry eyes and mouths of cackling frat-holes – wondering what horror they’d also been elbow-deep in tonight. A young woman with an open economics textbook sat with half a grilled cheese congealing on the plate, and I thought of how far I’d drifted away from that version of myself in just the last few hours. I felt the raw meat coolness of the dead woman’s kidney in my hand again and tried to avoid the pictures on the menu. Darden ripped the tops off four creamers and reached for the honey. “This was a big step tonight. I get that. I’ve been there.” Food sounded disgusting. Or maybe I wanted one of everything? “You’re jacked right now, endorphins surging, that’s all normal,” he said. “But I want to put your mind at ease.” It took all my energy to focus on his voice. “One, that stock is going to good homes that can’t wither on the waitlist any longer. You’re fucking Robin Hood, Jay. A half-dozen GoFundMe drives scored their reward tonight.” He stirred the creamers and a generous stream of honey into his cup. The chattering around us seemed to grow louder, and I leaned forward, mouth dry, trying to resurface. “What about desecration?” I asked, surprised to hear my own voice. He clicked his tongue against the side of his mouth. “Look, that’s between you and your god, but when everything we take is headed to the incinerator, I take the pragmatic view. It’s not like anyone knows how big an ash pile grandma makes, you know?” I slowly nodded, trying to picture the great parabola of one life saving a dozen lives and spiraling out until everyone was restored. I needed to believe him, so I did. My appetite was returning. $227,003 After a summer of pulling cash out of dead people’s chest cavities twice a week, I settled into a happy rhythm. I bought more scrubs, surgical bandanas, and a pair of Crocs. I studied everything I could about surgery in heavy books and videos on YouTube. I documented absolutely everything for post-game assessment. When I successfully removed my first corneas, I bought myself a pricey set of kitchen knives you never have to sharpen. Every other spare dollar went to my loan. During the weekdays I worked at Johnston Holbrook Labs, slicing chunks of pig fat into research-ready slabs we called Bibles. Bubbling with caffeine to push against my black market all-nighters, I found every moment of my day job a waste of time I could have spent playing doctor. Its sterility made me long for the dank linoleum of the basement, its clinical silence for staticky Tejano, its infinite supply of pink pig flesh for the assembly line of people whose lives were in transit between completion and celebrated remembrance. I played dominos with Solomon and grew accustomed to Darden’s wiry intensity. I started yoga classes and learned to brew my own kombucha. But the thinness of my joy crept up on me, and, after the novelty wore off, I recognized that my side hustle would never satisfy me the same way residency at a hospital would. It was hard to care that I was saving lives if I never got to see that resurrection myself. I desperately needed the curtain call. The sloppy, sobbing embrace and thankyouthankyouthankyou of someone who loves the person I just saved. I could not pretend my way to happiness. As thrill turned to drudgery, I found both comfort and frustration in still wanting to be a doctor. I spent August falling asleep for half an hour only to be awake the rest of the night. I paced and shivered and shook around my apartment and only called my mom once a week. One morning I hunched inside a hot shower and found my fingertips were still freezing. The warmth had evaporated from me. As if reaching into each body to harvest their offal pulled me deeper down into gray flesh – up to my knuckles, to my wrists, threatening to spread across every inch of bone and flesh. I saw myself crawling inside that first, fat woman’s chest cavity, pulling her skin flaps shut behind me, and making it my tomb. My call to Mackie went to voicemail. When I yelled at the bubbly, acne-scarred PA at the Urgent Care for saying maybe it was a circulation problem, there was no one else left in my life to call except Darden. He took a short puff off his vape pen and blew raspberry smoke into the night air as we walked the placid shoreline at Lady Bird Park. “I thought at first this would be a legitimate liminal substitute, but lately it just feels like I’m play-acting at being a doctor,” I said, pulling my hands inside the sleeve of my black sweater. “It’s not enough.” “A few others reached this point.” Being this close to him made my lips feel chapped. “You’re paying bills, but you can read a calendar. How many years of yanking out kidneys from Great Auntie Mirabelle before you’re square?” “At this rate, 18 years.” “Have you considered becoming a radiology tech?” “Oh, fuck you.” “Then it’s time for a raise,” he puffed again. “If you really think you’re ready for it.” “Ready for what exactly?” $104,888 Anthony Jenkins ran track but wasn’t good enough for a college scholarship, so he dropped out to get a job stocking at H-E-B to help at home. His mother Gladys did janitorial work for two companies and cleaned houses whenever she could. Her chemo still wasn’t paid for, and she considered stopping it, but Anthony wouldn’t let her even though he had no clue where to get that kind of money. That’s where Lloyd came in. Lloyd had money, and Lloyd needed a lung. In the legitimate system, if one of your organs blows out on you, you get added to a waitlist with far more people than parts. The system doesn’t care how much money you have or if you’re cute or play the piano better than everyone else at your school. Your only hope is that enough people die before you do. That’s the subtext for every prayer you send to God. Please, please, please let them all die before me. The system is broken. The system breaks you. Outside the legitimate system, Darden cares very, very much how much money you have. I shadowed another doctor for that first live transfer, watching from over her shoulder as she artfully removed a kidney from a lithe young man whose mouth hung open in unconscious reverie. I shadowed a few more times, got a crack at a live kidney for myself, and spent the winter reveling in keeping the organ bucket on the table alive alongside a small, rotating crew of anesthesiologists. All of it took place inside a strip mall space between an auto repair store and a discount market with pyramids of disintegrating grapefruits and blood oranges stacked inside the window. Our windows were newspapered over, and large poster board jack o’ lanterns adorned the walls from its past life as a seasonal costume shop. There were four gurneys separated by surgical curtains, and the place stank with antiseptic cleaners and building insulation. There were beeping monitors and blood pressure cuffs and when I closed my eyes, I could almost hear my name paged over the intercom. It was exquisite. Darden had crafted a sad little front area with a cheap couch, a couple of leather chairs, and a smudged glass coffee table where we helped the donor and donee agree on how much the organ was worth. Outfitted in scrubs, surgical mask slung under my chin, explaining the procedure and its risks to the patient was the closest I had ever felt to the real thing, and the high I earned off it lasted long after the last suture was in. I’d operated on dozens of live subjects before, but my first real dose of being a doctor came with Anthony. The first thing that went wrong that night was the anesthesiologist that showed up. It was Mackie. When he walked into the lobby I almost bolted for the back door, but when Darden shook his hand, it was worse. A piece of my life as a decent person had infiltrated this other version. We were theatrically casual about seeing each other again, but the mutual shame and judgement we felt was impossible to avoid broadcasting when our eyes met. Nerves forced that hundred-tooth smile across his face, but it immediately receded into eclipse. I was thrown for a loop. Then he threw me for a loop again. “Funny how we ended up with the same boss after all,” he said, prepping a series of sticky nodes to place all over Anthony’s body. “Darden?” “Oh, Christ. That dude’s a grease trap.” He placed another node. “I meant Dr. Hagel.” “Wait. The Chief of Medicine at Clemsy-Sebold?” “Of course. She’s the one who set me up with him.” Confusion. Yes. But also rage that someone so respected lorded over our dark market. Embarrassment that I was only adjacent to that respectability. Relief that there was a backbone of legitimacy behind everything we’d been doing. Horror to see beyond my dank, operational cell. I don’t know if I cleared these emotions from my mind before we began. I don’t know if what happened would have happened to anyone. I don’t know if I had any business in that room. All I remember is Anthony’s eyes taped shut, the microscopic slip of my hand, the nick in his renal artery, and the blood rising against the sides of stomach and small intestine. I sponged and tamped down sterile bandages, but the blood kept pooling. I applied pressure until Mackie shoved me out of the way and did something I couldn’t quite see. The room turned violet and I stumbled back, useless and hyperventilating. The monitor sounded a piercing alarm which turned into the single, steady tone. Mackie kept working, and I regained my senses enough to assist him in digging, digging, digging through the red muck to clamp the artery at various points. When Mackie got them in place, I started CPR, but it wasn’t enough. By that point, it almost never is. Darden calmly rose, walking to the monitor and pressing a button to power it down. “Alright, everyone. Let’s take ten cleansing breaths and try to gather ourselves,” he said. The room shook with silence. “Okay, then,” he continued. “This is obviously a tough situation, but it happens from time to time, and now that we’ve relaxed a bit, let’s get our game faces back on and finish up the job.” “You still want me to remove his kidney?” I asked, my throat clenching, my eyes raw. “At this point, I’d like you to remove everything.” I couldn’t believe what he was saying. “Fucking do it yourself.” “Jay—” “No. No more bullshit. This kid – this kid! – has a family.” “And he and his mother both understood the risks, and, hey, listen to me. Listen to me. It is in our best interests to make sure that she’s taken care of monetarily to the extent that she remains silent about all of this. Being pragmatic about the assets in front of us will go a long way to helping us ensure that. Unless maybe you’d like to foot that bill?” “That’s grotesque.” “Oh, please, Jay. You’ve always acted like you’re somehow detached from what we’re doing here when you’re the star of the goddamned show. Time to pick up your big girl panties and do what needs to be done.” I moved for the door, but Darden charged me, throwing me against the wall with his hand around my throat. Mackie turned his face away. “There. Is. A process for this, Jay,” Darden sneered. I froze at the ferocity of his voice and the sharp angles of his body against mine. Then I slammed my palm into his cheek, shocking him back and earning me enough time to scramble through the back door into the alleyway. I ran, covered in blood, into the darkness. Lost and panicked, I spun left out of the alleyway onto a two-lane road that plunged on either side into drainage ditches. Shouting voices echoed down the block. I ran until headlights bloomed behind me, and I was forced to stumble down the thin embankment and up to the fence line. Weary and sore where Darden had grabbed me, I gritted my teeth, lifting myself over the fence, landing next to a dozen bouncy houses, some inflated, most not. I hurried to the back door of the party store, peering inside to see a cluster of piñatas and rentable helium tanks. Locked. Exhausted, I crawled inside a bouncy house with a too-scrawny version of Elmo jutting out from the top with its bug-eyed gaze and static smile. I crouched down in the corner, listened, and hyperventilated as quietly as I could. I slept on the plane to my mom’s house in California. I hadn’t bothered going back to my apartment. After a frightened woman found me asleep inside the bouncy castle, I stole some clothes from a laundromat and caught a cab to the airport. My mom, short and sturdy with wide open arms and a sandalwood white bindi on her forehead, had not changed since I’d seen her last. She didn’t ask me why I’d suddenly landed on her doorstep; just chided me for not visiting enough and remarked that my job must be so, so stressful. The house hadn’t changed either. The carpet was soft with daily care, and the mist of spices constantly flying around the kitchen permeated every room with thick smells of cinnamon and spicy lal mirchi. She embraced me, and I relaxed. She cooked for me, and I collapsed. I read the first page of an old paperback twenty times. I slept. We got pedicures, and mom told me what she planned to plant in the fall. We chopped mangoes and ate them with yogurt. We walked to the park by the house and back. That night – for the first time since a friend’s surgeon father showed up for fifth grade career day and told me I could be a doctor too if I rigorously dedicated my life to it – I considered what other job I might do. I struggled to come up with much, but I caught a sliver of a life beyond a dead childhood dream. But at the end of the week, mom brought in the mail. There – tucked in among the Shopper Saver and a credit union statement – was a tidy little envelope addressed to me. The return address was the same one Darden had scribbled on the back of his business card. Inside was a Mother’s Day card. $85,332 My nights became slogs that mirrored the day. Worn thin, nearly broken, but stuck, I shaped pig fat into Bibles between lectures on how I looked tired and carved out all the useful bits from useless bodies in Solomon’s basement. I never worked on a live patient again. “I haven’t been completely honest with you, and that’s my fault,” Darden said when he picked me up from the airport. “Finding you at that bar wasn’t by chance. Dr. Hagel keeps her eye on promising students who fizzle out, and here you are. You’ve upset the natural order, but if keep your head down, everything else is forgiven.” He grinned with the promise of future violence. So, my head was down. All the joy I felt removing organs from dead bodies was gone. Darden had robbed me of it. When I closed my eyes at night, I saw an assembly line of decaying flesh stretching well beyond the horizon. I told myself I had no choice. I pictured my mom, frozen and graying in Solomon’s basement with Darden’s greedy hands shoved inside. I wilted against the threat. The drudgery lasted until September, about the same time my mom was planting her Celosia, when the police discovered Anthony’s body, his chest and stomach cavities stuffed with newspaper. I heaved and, this time, something came up. The disregard of the act awoke the last shred of who I once was, and a lot of things happened very quickly. I gathered up every note and picture I’d ever taken of our operations and called Clemsy-Sebold to let them know I was coming. Dr. Elizabeth Hagel’s office was modern and unremarkable except for the abundance of small, copper bird statues littered on bookshelves and side tables. Several floor-to-ceiling windows lined the wall behind her desk, framing her in sunlight. There was no complementary herbal tea. I’d seen Dr. Hagel speak at a colloquium on campus my sophomore year and was struck then by how unbothered she seemed for someone who’d spent twenty years in a profession known for long hours, drug abuse, and personal neglect. Her health problems, if she had any, were not immediately obvious to me, and that drove me crazy. They say that the guilty sleep well once they’ve been caught, but that’s not how I felt. What I decided to do meant reckoning with my own doom, and I found a certain measure of acceptance there, but I still cringed at whether I should be bartering at all. “What exactly are you requesting of me?” Dr. Hagel asked, her eyes studying her laptop screen. “I take everything I have to the police or you get me late admittance to a residency program far, far away from here.” “Kind of a small price considering I won’t be the one paying it,” she said, meeting my eyes. “And your threat is to turn yourself in?” “After seeing Anthony’s body on the news, yes. Along with all of you.” “I see.” “I don’t understand why Darden didn’t have him cremated.” “Solomon declined to get his hands dirty, and I’m smart enough to recognize leverage, which is why I’m also disinclined to accept your offer. Go to the police if you wish, but don’t expect me to visit you in prison.” Whether I was brave enough not to beg or simply saw no use in it, I can’t be sure, but I took a moment to resign myself to her refusal. “This – thing – that we do,” she said. “There is no road map for it save the one we create.” “So, was I helping people in desperate need or was I exploiting people just as financially fucked as I am?” She let a melancholy smile slip and told me, “Yes,” before motioning for me to leave. The system was broken, and so was I. I killed my car’s engine and sat in the police station parking lot for as long as I needed. I remember laughing because I genuinely had no idea what kind of jail sentence they give people for grave robbing. I tried to absorb as much of the sun as I could as I walked across the parking lot, as much of the birds flittering and singing. I kept one eye out for Darden or the fat old woman, mucky and disintegrating and slick with fluids, flying across the pavement to drag me away. I got to the door, grabbed the handle, and my phone rang. $70,532 You get three shots at becoming a doctor after med school. Match with a hospital straight off, pad your resume by prepping pig parts for lab tests and score on your second try, or extort a prominent Chief of Medicine who’s running an illegal organ racket. Dr. Hagel’s timing could have been better for my blood pressure, but I’d called her bluff, and I think she was happier to see me shipped away to St. Someone’s Hospital in Nowhere, Idaho, than to leave me as another loose end that could float to the surface of a drainage ditch. So, that’s how I became a doctor. Third time lucky. The move was hard. And expensive. I found it difficult to relate to my colleagues during the few months of my residency, but I’m settling in more now. I taught them how to play Fuzzy Operation. I lead a pre-natal yoga class. I disimpact bowels and deliver babies. I shove tubes into throats and urinary tracts. I’m up to my elbows in almost every warm liquid the human body creates. It’s everything I’ve ever wanted, and I’ve got to tell you, it lives up to my every expectation. My exhausting dream. I still have the nightmares, too. In my personal favorite, I’m standing barefoot in the fat old woman’s open gut, squishing intestines warm as congealed cheese between each toe. My mother lies on our weathered kitchen table in front me, telling me my job must be so, so stressful as I cut neatly into her, pulling away cubes of her meat, and eating them with slippery globs of yogurt. Otherwise, I have never been so happy. I’ve never felt so free to pay the minimum monthly amount on my student loan. This morning I assisted with my first legal surgery. A hernia with no tailgating equipment in sight. The lead surgeon was tall and thin and sharp with jaundice-kissed eyes. He was warm and funny and complimented my work although I mostly stood off to the side. As we scrubbed out, rubbing our forearms almost raw with soap, he lamented how tough it was for residents. He said if I ever need some extra cash, ever got desperate, he could hook me up with a very, very lucrative side gig. Off my silence, he grinned and asked if I wanted to tell the patient’s family that everything had gone smooth. Walking from the OR to the waiting room, I struggled to peel the shock from my face and felt double the shame that I couldn’t shake it. Couldn’t compartmentalize. The patient’s wife and young daughter were a matching set of straw-blonde hair. I introduced myself as a doctor, savoring a sweetness from it I hope I never get tired of. Our talk was business-like and kind. Clinical and comforting. Direct and softened with head nods. I swear I nailed it. The daughter – with wet eyes and a skull full of teeth that would soon need braces – told me, “Thanks for helping my daddy. Someday I wanna be a doctor just like you.” The post PseudoPod 751: As Well as the Infirm appeared first on PseudoPod.
26 minutes | 2 months ago
CatsCast 341: Bargain
Author : Sarah Gailey Narrator : Trendane Sparks Host : Laura Pearlman Audio Producer : Peter Behravesh Discuss on Forums “Bargain” first appeared in Mothership Zeta (Dec 2015) Bargain by Sarah Gailey Malachai loved his work. He loved wandering among the trappings of enormous wealth and influence, seeing the baubles that humans excreted to express their status. He especially loved watching those wealthy, influential mortals tremble before the might of his inescapable superiority. Malachai worked exclusively with those humans who had found themselves at the limit of how much power they could possess. They called him to bend the rules of time and space around their whims, so that they might be even more feared and loved by the other mortals. Their desires were predictable—money, knowledge, talent, authority. These were the kinds of people who hunted down ancient parchments with the Words of Invocation inscribed upon them. These were the kinds of people who did not concern their consciences with the compensation Malachai required for his services. They appreciated a bit of theatrical flair. So when he received the summons from dispatch, he responded with appropriate formality. Curling smoke, crackling lightning, the wailing of damned souls—a standard business-casual entrance. He waited for his cue, which was usually the sound of a man discovering terror for the first time in his comfortable life. Once that terror had peaked, Malachai would announce himself. Any sooner, and the human would get swept up in proceedings before their fear really set the tone. Thus, on this and all assignments, Malachai waited to hear the panic and the wailing and the what-have-I-wrought’s. He waited for quite some time. He looked around, waving his hands to clear some of the lingering smoke—which was actually just high-quality steam. They never noticed the difference, and real smoke would have aggravated his asthma. The result was visually pleasing and left his suit wrinkle-free, but occasionally served to obscure a mortal who was too frightened to plead at the proper volume. Malachai arranged himself into a posture of menace and waited for the last of the steam to dissipate. There was nobody in the room. Malachai frowned in puzzlement. There were rooster-shaped salt and pepper shakers on a well-used round table, and a sign hung over the door that read “If you want breakfast in bed, sleep in the kitchen!” This didn’t make sense. He didn’t do domestic calls. A massive brown Labrador lolloped around the corner, his tail waving frantically. Malachai narrowed his eyes and bared his fangs at the dog. He projected threatening thoughts, visions of Labradors being eaten by bigger, scarier dogs; visions of thunder and flooding and tigers pouncing on unsuspecting puppies; visions of the hounds of Hell shaking off their chains and storming the little kitchen in search of a mortal morsel. The dog smelled Malachai’s shoes—and, ignoring Malachai’s strenuous objection, also smelled Malachai’s crotch—with great interest. He wuffled to himself about the results and sat. His tail thumped on the linoleum. Malachai stared at the dog. Looked over his shoulder. Nobody there. Just him and the dog. He crouched in front of the beast and looked into the large, vacant brown eyes. First time for everything. “Did… uh, did you summon me?” The dog panted happily and continued thumping his tail. “I summoned you. He’s a dog. He can’t read Archaic Latin.” A woman walked into the kitchen. Malachai was not good at guessing mortal age, but his best estimate placed her at around…three hundred years old? She was upright and walking, but relied heavily on a dull aluminum cane. Her back was straight, and her eyes were clear, and Malachai assessed her as aware of her encroaching mortality, but not intimidated by it. Malachai drew himself to his fullest, most menacing height, and began billowing smoke (well, steam). He drew breath to begin his Terrible Introductions. The dog stood and nudged a cold, wet nose into Malachai’s hand. “Oh, go on and pet him, would you? He’s going to start pouting if you don’t. And enough with the special effects. We have a lot to discuss and not much time.” Malachai turned to the woman and allowed the fires of Hell to blaze behind his eyes. He hissed in a fashion he had picked up from a colleague with a uniquely crocodilian aspect. The dog whined softly and nudged at his hand again. The woman lowered herself into a chair at the kitchen table and raised her eyebrows pointedly at Malachai. “Pet Baxter, and then let’s begin.” The hellfire and hissing hadn’t worked. There was only one explanation: this was a mistake. The woman was old for a mortal—if he recalled his training, humans started to peter out around three hundred and fifty years or so—and she had probably intended to place an order for a new pelvis or lawn furniture or something. She just didn’t realize who he was. It had never happened to him before, but it wasn’t unheard of—someone means to say “Operator, please connect me to Home Shopping Network customer support,” but they have a stutter, and what comes out instead is an Archaic Latin summoning of a Pestilent Creature. He turned off the theatrics, patted Baxter on the head, and smiled at the poor, foolish old woman. She did not smile back at him. “Ma’am. I think you got the wrong number.” No need to scare her. Malachai liked to startle the hubris out of mortals, but causing cardiac arrest in little old ladies gave him no particular satisfaction. He would approach this gently. “Oh?” A look of very mild concern crossed her brow. “Well, then, who are you?” Malachai was not used to delivering this next part without a certain amount of panache, but he tried to subdue his tone so as not to shock the woman too badly. Only a small rumble of thunder trickled out; he was proud of his restraint. “I am the Great and Ominous Malachai, Devourer of Miscreants, Archduke of Nightmares, Usurper of Souls. I am He Who Is Called Despair!” Her brow unfurrowed and she gave a satisfied nod. “It was you I wanted, all right. Please, take a seat. My name is Lydia. Would you like some tea? I have Lemon Zinger and Sleepytime.” The Archduke of Nightmares patted Baxter’s flank as his Lemon Zinger steeped. “Baxter is getting on in years, but he’s too dumb to realize it. Just like he’s too dumb to be afraid of you.” Lydia’s hands shook slightly as she lifted her own teacup. The teacup was misshapen and had “#1 Grandma” painted across the front in drippy glaze. “Or maybe he’s like me—too old to be afraid of you.” Baxter laid his head on Malachai’s knee and sighed with deep contentment; the Usurper of Souls tried to shove the dog away to no avail. Malachai felt awkward. He had always held a strong position during negotiations—he would arrive with smoke (steam), lightning, baying of hounds, et cetera, and then he would Speak his Title. The person who had summoned him would wet themselves or drop a glass or start gibbering tearfully, and then they would plead for mercy, and then they would offer the life of whatever chump they had available, and then the bargaining could begin. This woman did not seem to know the procedures. He fidgeted in his chair and scratched Baxter’s huge, blocky head. “So, then, Frail Mortal—” “Oh, please, no need to be so formal. Call me Lydia.” “…So, then, ah, Lydia. Ahem. Do You Know The Covenant Which You So Foolishly Invoke At Your Peril?” He rolled the ‘r’ in ‘peril’ to make up for the loss of ‘frail mortal’. “Oh, yes, Malachai. I know.” “What Foolish Mortal Have You Designated To Fulfill The Bargain?” “Myself.” Lydia folded her hands on the table with an air of finality. “And Where Is The Foolish Mortal—wait, what?” “I will pay.” Malachai retracted his claws enough to gently lay a hand on her wrist. “No, no, Lydia, I’m asking you who you’re going to sacrifice. Look, I really don’t think you get how this works—” Lydia looked at him coolly. “I understand quite well. You grant a request, and you take a soul. Well, I am making a request, and then you are going to grant it, and then you’ll take my soul as payment. This is not difficult to understand, dear.” Malachai shook his head. He was deeply relieved to find that this was not going to work. “I can’t bill you in arrears. Payment up front. Sorry, it’s policy. Nothing I can do about it.” He stood to leave. “Thank you for the tea.” Lydia rapped a gnarled knuckle sharply on the wooden tabletop. “Sit down, young man, we are not finished here.” Malachai brushed dog fur off of his suit pants. “Look, lady, I can’t help you, I’m s—” “Sit Ye Down, Pestilent Creature.” Her words were imbued with the Power of The Summoner. Malachai eased back into the chair. The Power of The Summoner had not been wielded against him in some time; he thought the practice had died out long ago. Baxter returned his head to Malachai’s lap and drooled agreeably on his knee. “Now.” The old woman pursed her lips at the demon. “I know the bargain. I’m not stupid and it’s not complicated. I don’t need to be alive for my request to be granted.” Malachai’s front two sets of ears perked in spite of his intent to sulk. So she did know the procedures. And the technicalities. Lydia noticed his interest and continued with greater confidence. “I want you to save my wife. She has cancer, and she is going to die, and I want you to make it so that she lives.” Heaviness settled over the room. Mortals and their cancer. They were always getting cancer. Tears shimmered briefly in Lydia’s eyes; Malachai looked at Baxter, giving the mortal a moment to collect herself. He rubbed the dog’s velvet ears. “So, you want me to save her, and take you?” He did not lift his gaze from the top of Baxter’s head. Lydia sniffed delicately. “Yes. I want you to make her young and healthy again. Not too young, mind you. She was happiest at around…thirty-five. I remember because it was our tenth anniversary, and she turned to me, and she said, ‘This is the best I’ve ever felt.’ And we laughed, because you know, we were supposed to be these ‘middle-aged’ women now, and, and—” she broke off and put a hand over her eyes. Malachai was embarrassed for her. Fear displays he could handle, but this was out of his wheelhouse. Hoping to escape her tears, he crouched on the floor to rub Baxter’s belly. The dog made a deep groan like the timbers of an old ship settling. Lydia laughed as she patted her cheeks with a napkin. “That’s a good sound, from him.” Before he could stop himself, Malachai laughed, too. “I know. We have some hounds at HQ that make the same noise when we feed them thieves’ souls.” When he looked back up at Lydia, she was smiling sadly. “So. I’ve said my goodbyes. I’m ready whenever you are. Deborah is just in the other room. Would you like to see her? Do you need to be in the same room to…do it? She won’t know you’re here, I’m afraid. Palliative care.” Malachai did not want to see the dying female. He also did not want to take Lydia’s soul. For the first time in his career, he did not want to do his job. Lydia folded her hands on the table again, a gesture of infinite patience. He stalled desperately. “Wait. How did you know how to summon me?” Lydia smiled. “I’m a snoop. I found it in Deborah’s diary.” “Where did she get it?” Lydia shrugged. “How should I know? Is this important?” She was growing impatient. “We don’t have long. The doctors said she could go at any moment. Do I need to sign anything?” Hearing her sharp tone, Baxter whined and dropped his ears—a portrait of canine guilt. Lydia scratched under his collar. “Good boy. Don’t worry, I’m not mad at you.” Malachai wanted to stall more but didn’t want Baxter to blame himself for Lydia’s frustration, so he came clean. “I. Geez. This is—I mean. I don’t want to take your soul, Lydia. This is a bad arrangement. Sacrifices—they’re meant to be selfish. Most people kidnap someone, or trick a spouse, or buy a baby on the black market. It’s supposed to be, you know.” He looked at her meaningfully, but her face remained blank. “Evil.” Lydia frowned. “Well, I don’t want to kidnap anyone. And I only get one request, right? You can’t make us both young again. So why would I want to stick around? To be old and alone? No thank you.” She folded her thin arms across her chest with an air of decision. Malachai didn’t like the feeling of conspiring with a Foolish Mortal, but he felt compelled by propriety. This woman was doing it all wrong. He lowered his voice. “I could probably do it if you held hands with her, and if you phrased it just right. ‘I Demand That You Make Us Young And Hale Again, Pestilent Creature,’ something like that.” “But you still need a sacrifice, and I’m sorry, but I don’t have anyone else to give you.” Baxter rolled onto his back, hoping to elicit more belly rubs. Malachai looked down at the old dog, then back up at Lydia. “…you can’t think of anyone?” The office was massive. A wall of windows looked out over a sparkling city. The spotless desk was made from brushed platinum; the desk chair was upholstered in premium tiger leather. Several overstuffed armchairs were poised around a coffee table made from interlocking elephant tusks. A man in a white suit stood facing a towering fireplace, his hands clasped behind his back. In the fireplace, a sheet of ancient parchment smoldered and crackled. On the panda-skin rug, his captive writhed, struggling to free herself from her bonds before she was to be sacrificed. The man turned as he finished the invocation, prepared to face the demon. He would dominate it. Bend it to his will. He would own this city. He would own the world. Smoke (steam) billowed through the room. A peal of thunder sounded from somewhere near the brushed platinum desk, and a bolt of lightning split the ivory table in two. The hounds of Hell snarled their rage and wuffled their interest in belly rubs, and the man in the white suit could hear the creaking of their iron chains as they strained to tear his soul from his body with monstrous, gnashing teeth. A figure appeared in the smoke. No—two figures. “I am the Great and Ominous Malachai, Devourer of Miscreants, Archduke of Nightmares, Usurper of Souls, Master of the Hound of Chaos!” The man in the white suit cowered. A dark stain spread across the front of his slacks. The Hound of Chaos farted softly. “Baxter, damn it. You—sit. Baxter. Sit.” The man in the white suit coughed. “Uh, Please, O Ye Harbinger, I Beg Your Mercy.” The Hound of Chaos sat and thumped his tail against the platinum desk. The Devourer of Miscreants fed him a treat and clicked a little metal training tab before rounding on the man in the white suit. “Frail Mortal! Do You Know The Covenant Which You So Foolishly Invoke At Your Own—Baxter, down. No, don’t pet him, he needs to learn not to jump up on people. Baxter, sit.” Malachai gave up. The Hound of Chaos was well on his way to becoming a suitable companion, but he had no sense of theatre at all. The Archduke of Nightmares let out a sigh as the man in the white suit rubbed the Hound’s velvet ears and repeatedly affirmed his status as a Very Good Dog. It had been worth it, though. It had been worth it to see Lydia and Deborah together, young again, so in love. That had been his first time seeing mortals weep with anything other than terror, and it had been worth the farting and the crotch-sniffing and the endless, constant shedding. And besides, Malachai thought. Even if Baxter lacked a sense of theatre, he really was a Very Good Dog. The post CatsCast 341: Bargain appeared first on PseudoPod.
41 minutes | 2 months ago
PseudoPod 750: The Artist and the Door
Author : Dorothy Quick Narrator : Dani Daly Host : Alasdair Stuart Audio Producer : Chelsea Davis Discuss on Forums “The Artist and the Door” was first published in Weird Tales in November 1952 The Artist and the Door by Dorothy Quick The advent of the artist and the door was almost simultaneous. I have always wondered if the one would have been as sinister without the other. Of course, the evil was in the door, but if the artist hadn’t come along just then perhaps it might never have been released. I say that to comfort myself, but I know it isn’t true. Evil is evil. It is a power and its strength is beyond mortal knowledge. Even without the artist there would have been horror. He only served to give it speedier expression. But I am ahead of myself. The story goes back to my desire to have a carved door for my Elizabethan farm house. I had rescued the cottage from demolition. It was just a frame when I first saw it, but the Tudor structure was there and two of the old tiny-paned glass windows had miraculously survived. The old beams were still in place and one linen fold panelled room which I visioned for my study. There was a gap. like a missing tooth, where the front door had been. I bought the house and restored it tenderly into the lovely place it now is. I did it with care and devotion, but my entrance door was modern and an anachronism. I hated it, but I told myself someday I would find an old one in keeping with the rest of Little Tudor – the name I had bestowed on my home. I moved in, made friends with my neighbors, particularly the ten-year-old daughter of the people who owned the Manor house of which the farm had originally been a part. Anne was old for her years and bookishly inclined, When she heard I was an author, she read my historical novels and accorded me a kind of hero worship that was good for my lonely spinster’s heart. She was always under foot and my brother, Weston, who lives with me and looks after my affairs, said, “She’s good for you, Tansy. She keeps you from too much work and loneliness. Weston was right. He had to be in London a good deal attending to my contracts for my novels are done in the cinema and on the wireless, and there are quite a lot of details to look after for which I have no head. I wouldn’t be half the money maker I am without Weston’s pushing. As it is, we do very well. When he was away I welcomed Anne’s society. We grew very close and her parents were delighted. They were busy enough, Sir Richard with his bird raising and Lady Salter with her young. She had five children younger than Anne. So alI in all, Anne was with me a good deal of the time. I was alone, however, the day I found the door. It had been a day I intended to devote entirely to work, so I’d told Anne not to come over. The morning’s writing had gone very well, but after lunch I struck a snag. Katherine Howard, my current heroine, proved difficult, the facts about her too obscure to fit into my plot. “You need air” I told myself sternly, and went out to the barn for my car. As I drove the Bentley past the road leading to the Manor I slowed up, but Anne wasn’t in sight, so I rode on, thoroughly enjoying the Kentish countryside. It was in springtime blossom and the apple trees in full flower provided such breath-taking beauty I could hardly keep my eyes from them long enough to do justice to my driving. As a matter of fact, it was fortunate there was no traffic on the back roads I had chosen or anything might have happened. I gave myself up to the season and wove in and out and around every orchard I could find. All at once I noticed a group of cars and carriages, even a riding horse or two, standing by an old stone fence. I stretched my neck and saw at the end of a long lane a dark, forbidding stone house with a sign hanging from one of the windows announcing “Sale Today.” There were people going in and I realized it was an auction. I added my Bentley to the cluster of cars and walked up the lane. Auctions have always fascinated me, and a country one is usually something special. When I saw the door I knew why I was here. I had been led. There it was, just what I needed for Little Tudor, The Farm, Aldringham, Kent. It was of oak polished by centuries of wind and rain, carved by the hand of man in Tudor times – just what I wanted. I went inside, sharp-eyed for London buyers who might prevent my getting it. Antiques and period pieces are hard to come by now-a-days. But so far as I could see, the people were local. There was no one well dressed enough for London. It was a country crowd. I looked around. The large room, drawing room I supposed, was quite crowded – with people and the strangest assortment of furniture I’d ever seen – of all kinds and periods from a Gothic bench through a wonderful Queen Anne chest to some pieces that must have come from Grand Rapids, U. S. A. There was a table, complete with a pitcher of water, a glass and gavel for the auctioneer. Presently a red-faced, jolly-looking man took his place behind it, picked up the hammer and was just about to begin when a voice rang out, Tell the truth before you sell, man. Don’t let them buy the Devil’s wares unknowing. The speaker was a wizened old woman who looked like a witch. Her eyes were beadily bright and she spoke with authority. The auctioneer held up his hand. He was obviously annoyed. “If you’d given me time I was going to tell my audience,” he began with a lie, for I’m sure he’d had no intention of anything but the usual patter, “that this house has had the reputation of being haunted. That’s why it’s to be torn down, but everyone in these parts knows that. The last owner – an artist – was supposed to have sold his soul to the devil so’s he could live here. He was the last of the line and the pictures he painted were passing strange.” His audience was breathless now, and a little shivery, so he warmed up to his work by adding melodramatically. “These pictures have all been burnt, and the house has been exorcised with hell, book and candle by a priest. That includes the furnishings, ladies and gents, so you can buy with a free hand. Now, take this chest, genuine Queen Anne-” he began extolling the beauties of the chest I had singled out. From then on everything went quickly to “ohs” and “ahs” from the “Ladies and Gents.” Bidding was brisk and the auctioneer worked even faster than most of his kind. It was as though everyone was anxious to get away before sundown. I didn’t blame them. The place had an uncanny atmosphere despite the exorcising, or maybe that had only been in the auctioneer’s mind. A good many things had been sold that morning, so there wasn’t so much to fall under the gavel. I edged nearer the witch-like old woman. Towards the end she grinned at me. “You’re wise, dearie, not to buy. The Masserys never had no luck, not since William the Conqueror’s time they didn’t, and their things shared their evil with them. Hain’t you noticed things do? Reflect their owners, I mean.” I told her I hadn’t, but now that she spoke of it I thought she was right. I admitted I wanted to buy the door. She looked at me and shook her head. “It’s been there a long time. It had best go with the house, miss. The door now. It’s evil too. Maybe it was open and the priest’s words were lost on it. Let be, girl, let be.” But I bought it just the same, for three pounds. No one else wanted it, and the auctioneer was anxious to be off. As his men tied it on the roof of my car I saw the old woman shaking her head in the background, but I had no premonitions, I was overjoyed to have found just what I had always craved for Little Tudor. I had been careful to get the old hinges along with the door, and once it was in place my home would be complete. I was so happy I hummed a little tune all the way home. Even the apple trees had lost their charm. When I drove up in front of my barn I found Anne, Weston and Old Tim, the gardener, wondering where I’d gone. They were glad to welcome me back and delighted to see my find. “It’s perfect,” Weston announced. “Just like you to get the very thing, miss,” contributed the gardener. Only Anne was silent. “Don’t you like it?” I asked, not wanting there to be one fly in the ointment, or one word of dissent, I had already forgotten the old woman. Anne looked at the door which Weston and old Tim were holding. It’s beautiful she said reluctantly, beautiful, but there seems something evil about it.” She shuddered involuntarily. I remembered the old woman then. I thought it strange that Anne, child as she was and miles away, should echo her words. But I spoke sharply. “It’s old, all old things have seen evil, much of evil. Sometimes they can reflect what they’ve seen to sensitive minds.” She accepted my explanation with gravity, but she had the last word. “Yes, only – only it’s as though this evil were alive.” Long before the twilight which is so lasting in England had ended, Weston and old Tim had the door in place. “Evil or not, it looks magnificent,” Weston said. “Does it seem evil to you?” I asked. “No.” Weston was matter of fact. “What you said to Anne is true, though. It doesn’t seem just like any door.” “It isn’t. It’s Tudor.” We laughed at the pun. Then I told Weston about the old woman. He was quiet for little, then he shrugged. “Maybe but it’s a fine old piece and just what we wanted. Let’s forget the rest.” That was how we left it. The next morning Weston went up to London in his own car – an ancient Daimler which, true to tradition, still ran like a song. I decided I’d walk to market. Aldringham wasn’t far, the exercise would do me good. Anne, who had come over for breakfast, went with me. When we reached the gate we found the artist. He was lying spread-eagled on the road with a nasty bruise on his forehead. We knew he was an artist as his easel lay beside him and a box of paints with half its contents spilled was there, too. He was quite unconscious, evidently the victim of a hit and run driver. I sent Anne to ring up the doctor and when she’d done that to return with old Tim. I felt the artist’s pulse. In view of the tools of his trade there was no doubt of his profession. The beat under my fingers was faint but steady. I knew enough about fractures and concussions not to disturb him, so I began picking up the tubes of paint and putting them in his box. I was just aware of the doctor’s car in the distance when I found him awake and regarding me. “So you’re better.” I said. He smiled ruefully. “I guess so. Is anything broken?” “You should know.” I told him and watched him flexing his arms and legs. Apparently there was nothing wrong with him. He grinned as the doctor came over. After a hasty examination the doctor said he was suffering from shock. He should be quiet for a day or so. The M.D. looked at me so I invited him to stay at Little Tudor. After all, he’d practically been injured on my ground. I really had no choice. The doctor and old Tim helped him in. I put him in the guest room. He slept most of the day. The doctor had seen to that but by night he was up and insisting on being no trouble. He finally came to dinner in a robe of Weston’s. He looked very young and handsome with blond, waving hair and deep blue eyes the color of turquoise. There was something open and ingenuous about him that made him most appealing. He was charming, talker too, Actually he was an artist only on the side. He had a regular job on a newspaper. Painting was his hobby and he was on a two weeks vacation walking tour indulging it. He had only a few days left before he had to be back at Fleet Street. He showed me his sketch book. The things in it were good, He certainly knew how to draw and paint. Maybe some day he could illustrate a book of mine, I suggested. He’d like that, he told me. By now Mrs. Tim had cleared the table and I was sitting by the fire. The artist, his name was Sandy Gordon, was moving up and down the big room. But he’d like to do something now to pay his way. How about painting that door? It looked so plain in the room. I explained it was Tudor and all the carving was on the outside. Inside there was only the outline of four squares, and the wood wasn’t as well polished, but I told him it would be out of character to paint it. “No, it wouldn’t.” He’d been to some castle on his trip, pure Tudor, which had painted doors. It was even rumored Holbein had painted them. He’d do a good job. Please let him. Otherwise he could hardly accept my hospitality What could I do but weaken? When I came down next morning he was at work, Mrs. Tim hovering near enthusiastically. Later in the day Anne joined Mrs. Tim. “It’s a lovely color, isn’t it?” she asked, but she looked worried. When I asked her why, she mumbled something about “still evil.” Sandy didn’t finish the back of the door until just before it was time for me to take him to the train. Then he called me. “Do you like it?” He pointed to the door and stood back. It was exquisite, a path outlined with a serpentine hedge of box leading off into a riot of roses. There were roses all along the side, across the top, bower-like. Mammoth roses, incredibly full blown. The colors were gorgeous. One could almost smell them. “It’s wonderful. I told him with enthusiasm, and it was. Then, because he was obviously waiting for more, I added, “It makes one want to find out where the path goes.” He turned away. “I shouldn’t try to discover if I were you. It’s a funny thing,” he went on with a rush as though the words were forced out of him, “it isn’t what I meant to do at all I’d planned a Persian sort of thing, a princess in a flowery field with a prince on horseback. But when I started to paint it was as though another hand seized mine and this is the result. Those exotic colors aren’t me at all. I usually deal in muted shades. These are stronger than I ordinarily use, and I never saw a rose like any of these. Oh, well, suppose it’s genius. Anyway, it’s more vivid than anything I’ve ever done. Actually I’m quite proud of it.” “I shall be too.” I told him. Then we pushed for the train. As it pulled out he leaned from the window and called, “Don’t walk down that path.” Then the train took him off to London. When I got back to Little Tudor, Anne was sitting, watching the door. I thought she was looking out for me, but such it developed was not the case. She was looking at Sandy’s mural. “Isn’t it funny how those lovely roses take all the evil away, Aunt Tansy!” She always called me that. “I’ve never seen such pretty flowers and that path – where do you suppose it goes? I’d like to find out.” “You mustn’t, I broke in sharply, remembering what Sandy had said. She called her brown eyes to my slate gray ones and laughed childishly, “As though I could! But I’m sure it’s somewhere lovely like the flowers. Perhaps Sandy knows.” “When he comes back to visit we’ll ask him.” I looked at the door myself and once again it seemed as though I could smell the roses and that they moved as though swept by some slight breeze. Anne slipped her hand in mine. “The roses dance. I’m sure at the end of the path there’s a carnival – a carnival of roses.” I wondered where she’d heard the word carnival. It was an odd word for a child to know. Perhaps she’d picked it up from Sandy. “Such a lovely scent.” She half whispered. “There were never such roses in this world.” She wasn’t really aware of what she was saying. It was curious that she seemed to have taken the words right out of my mind “Come on.” I cried, sweeping her up. “Let’s go for a walk.” Instinctively we went out the side door leading onto the terrace. It was only then that I realized since I had brought home the new door no one, not even Weston, had used it. The next morning I was doing much better with Katherine Howard when suddenly Anne rushed into the room. “Surprise, surprise,” she cried and dropped a yellow rose on my manuscript. It was the most perfect flower I have ever seen, much larger than most. It looked like a sequined star and the dew on it glistened like diamonds. “Why, Anne, wherever did you get this? It looks like one of Sandy’s roses.” She giggled, “It is! I found it lying in front of the door. Do you suppose it dropped off?” “Don’t be silly, Anne. You know that’s impossible.” I was sharp again, hating myself and the hurt look in her eyes. “Did you pick it in your mother’s garden?”. “No rose is blooming yet.” She told me gravely. “Not even in the conservatory. Besides, I’ve never seen a rose like this, not even at the Flower Show in London.” I knew she’d been taken for a treat last year, and I knew she was right. I had never seen such a rose either. “Perhaps it comes from the end of the path,” she suggested. “Anne, you mustn’t say such ridiculous things, or even think them. Probably Sandy sent the rose down from London. It’s most likely a new kind he knew and that’s why he drew them on the door. He told old Tim to put it there for me to find.” I made my tones convincing, although I was remembering what Sandy had said about his painting. It wasn’t like him and I never saw a rose like any of these. Maybe he had found one and sent it as I’d told Anne. Anne didn’t argue. She only looked hurt. “Don’t you want it?” she asked, her lip quivering. “Of course, dear. Let’s put it in one of the best vases, I’ll keep it here on my desk. It will inspire me.” We made quite a thing of putting it in water and a ceremony of placing it on my desk. It didn’t inspire me. It worried me, for it lasted as no flower has any right to last. After a week it was as fresh as the day Anne brought it. Its yellow unfaded, dew still nesting at its heart. Anne worried me too. She was always sitting, looking at the door. When I asked her why she said she saw so much in the picture. “Some day I’ll know what’s at the end of the path. I have to.” She was serious and I was frightened. I tried to discourage her visits, but it was no use. She was always there and now she was no longer interested in being with me. It was only the door that fascinated her. I was beginning to wish I’d never found it. I wished Weston would come home, but he was detained in London with a big cinema contract for my last book. “Even with the tax you’re going to have some money to spend.” he told me on the telephone. I was too worried, and too afraid to care. Anne was changing before my vision, growing thin and pale. Her eyes, great pools of mystery, and her hands when they touched mine were like claws. I tried to talk to her mother, but she wouldn’t take it seriously. “Just growing,” was her comment on her child, “and working her imagination, over time. If it wasn’t your door it would be something else. Don’t worry But I couldn’t help it. There came a rainy day and between the wind and storm I knew Anne wouldn’t get over to Little Tudor. I made up my mind I’d watch the door myself, to see if I could discover what she saw. I suggested to Mrs. Tim that she take a nap, and when I knew she was settled I went into the long room. There, in front of the door, lay another rose. A red one this time, as beautiful and as unreal as the yellow one Anne had brought me. knew now Sandy hadn’t sent it. I’d written and asked him and he’d denied it heartily. “Couldn’t be a real rose like those products of my imagination -” he’d put on paper. I took the red nose and put it in the vase with the yellow one, which was so strangely unwithered. I left it, glad to be free of the overpowering scent, but when I returned to the long room the perfume was still there, heavy as pure attar of roses, permeating the entire room. I sat in the deep chair facing the door where Anne always sat, with the sweet, cloying odor of the rose in my nostrils growing stronger every second. I watched the door. Once again the roses seemed to sway as though moved by some, to me, unfelt breeze. They seemed to be leaning towards me, beckoning me to come to the path, and the patch stretched endlessly and invitingly before me. What a picture it was. Genius, Sandy had said, it was more. It was a masterpiece, living as some pictures do. I grew more and more enthralled. Now I could understand Anne’s feelings. No wonder she liked to sit here with such sheer beauty before her, with endless, inviting vistas opening to her eyes. Carnival of roses – roses in riotous confusion, the epitome of beauty urging me to be a part of it. The heady aroma of the roses’ perfume must be affecting my brain. But I was like one compelled. I had to touch the flowers, to feel their velvety petals, to be part of them. I was out of the chair without my knowledge, moving towards the door. The scent was stronger now, more alluring, and the path more inviting. I knew if I opened the door I could step onto the path and I knew, too, that I desired that more than anything in the world. I put my hand on the door handle. I turned it, opened the door. There was sunshine and roses outside, a riot of roses, red, pink, yellow and white rustling roses, moving towards me, touching my hands with velvet, my cheeks with dew, while the path sparkled like diamonds, and a bright, unnatural sunshine flooded everything like a spotlight. I was dizzy with the redolence of the flowers. I took a step forward. I was on the threshold. Now, in another minute, I would be on the path. I would know such beauty as was not in the world. Crashing through the sunlight and the roses came Sandy’s voice, “Don’t walk that path,” and then suddenly the cloying scent was gone and instead I smelt that foul odor of decay that is part of yellow roses just before they begin to wilt. Shocked, I drew back, though there were hands, strong, masculine hands, trying to pull me forward through the door, I exerted all my will and stepped back again into my long room. The path, the sun and the roses were gone. There was only wind and rain outside as the door slammed shut. I fell back into the chair and covered my face with my hands. The door was evil. I knew now Anne was right. The old woman had known. She had been right too. Tomorrow I would have it removed. I could run no risks with Anne. I remembered now what Sandy had said about it was as though someone else had seized his hands, and it wasn’t his kind of painting. It was that of the last owner of the house. He had been an artist, the auctioneer had said so, who had sold his soul to the devil so he could stay in the house, and that his pictures had been burned. The roses were his pictures, not Sandy’s – his. They would have to be destroyed, know the cleansing of fire. They were utterly evil, like the door, which, as the old woman had said, probably had been open and escaped the exorcising by the priest, so the evil spirit of the artist could cling to it and come to Little Tudor, bringing his evil with him. This was all strange and shattering to me, but I did not question it. I somehow knew it was so, knew too that I must cleanse the evil with fire, tomorrow. I could do nothing while the storm raged. Now I was shaken and unnerved. Work would be my best medicine. I went back to my study. I ignored the roses on my desk. I couldn’t bear to touch them. I started to write, My pencil took no note of time, but suddenly I was aware of movement on my desk. I looked up. The sun was shining in my windows. I had been too absorbed in Katherine Howard’s love scene with the king to notice the storm was over, but that wasn’t what had disturbed me. It was the roses. They were swaying and moving as though dancing with joy. “Anne!” I cried, dasping my throat. The rain was over. She could have come to Little Tudor, I rushed into the long room. She was there, her hand on the door knob, just as mine had been a short time ago. “Anne,” I called, “Anne, come back. There was all the fright and horror I felt in my voice. It didn’t stop her. She only called out over her shoulder “I can’t stop, Tansy, I’ve got to find out where the path goes.” I rushed forward toward Anne and the moving roses but I was too far away. She swung the door open. I saw again the carnival of roses, the path, the sunshine so different from that visaged from my study window. “Anne, Anne, no, no.” I was screaming, but it was no use. She was over the threshold; when I reached the door it was shut, the painted roses on it rustled mockingly. I opened the door. There was no sign of Anne, no path, no roses, no unnatural sunshine. Anne was never seen again. She had found the path and vanished completely. Her disappearance made a nine days wonder in the neighborhood. I said I had last seen her go through the door. There was no use telling the rest. No one but I ever knew the truth – or what I thought was the truth. The next day we burned the door. Old Tim and I. We chopped it up first, in small pieces, and what a bonfire it made! As it burned wildly I heard, or thought I heard, two voices. One was a man’s screaming with frustration, the other was Anne’s. Thank you, Tansy,” was what she said, I like to think the fire freed her soul from Evil. When the door was completely ashes and I got back to my study I looked for the roses. They were gone. Only around the vase were little seared petals that resembled the ashes of the door. The post PseudoPod 750: The Artist and the Door appeared first on PseudoPod.
41 minutes | 2 months ago
PseudoPod 749: Notes on a Resurrection
Author : Natalia Theodoridou Narrators : Scott Campbell, Graeme Dunlop, Kitty Sarkozy, Kat Day, Alex Hofelich, Jamie Grimes, Shawn Garrett, Karen Bovenmyer, Adrian Howard, Timothy Menzel, Christiana Ellis and Nika Harper Host : Alasdair Stuart Audio Producer : Marty Perrett Discuss on Forums “Notes on a Resurrection” was originally published in Strange Horizons (July 2019). The Feast Day of Lazarus is March 17 for the Eastern Orthodox Church. Notes on a Resurrection by Natalia Theodoridou the reporter I heard about the story from the friend of a friend of an acquaintance, and didn’t put any stock in it at first. In my profession, you hear things like this with some frequency. You’d be a fool if you went running every time you heard someone cry fire. And if you end up getting your whiskers singed once or twice, you should consider yourself lucky. But this? I keep asking myself why didn’t I stop them. I was there. I was the only sane one, right? Personally unaffected by the tragedy. That’s what the judge said, anyway, even though I was never prosecuted. Not by the law, anyway. People stopped asking eventually, but I never stopped asking myself, all these years. Probably never will. For a long time I hid behind professional clichés: we’re there to report, not influence, blah blah blah. All I can say now in my defense is: who would want to be the person who robbed a people of their miracle? No matter how certain your lack of faith, how level your head. You know? And in the end, I wonder, did we kill a kid or did we kill a god, and does it possibly make a difference. someone else’s mother We all think we are the protagonists of every story, don’t we? If not of every story, at least the ones that feature our son dead in a casket. I keep thinking of the wake, keep going over everything, wondering why her son and not mine. Did I not pray hard enough? Did I pick the wrong clothes for his last rites? Did I not wash his body well enough? Did I hold impure thoughts? I did, didn’t I? Did I offend someone when I said they all looked like they were sleeping, except for the bleeding in their eyes? All the bodies laid out side by side like that. And the smell of frankincense burning my throat—for a minute I wondered if it was the poison, come for the rest of us, and I almost laughed. The irreverence. Can you imagine? But I didn’t laugh, of course, I didn’t laugh. I knelt. “So young,” someone cried, and someone else repeated it, and I repeated it too, and I didn’t even know which one of them I was talking about anymore. Not my own son, surely. So young, so young, so young. And they were all young, weren’t they? Being barely old enough to work at a factory does not make you a grownup. Even the older ones, the fathers and the brothers and the aunts, they were all still too young. We cried all night over how young they were. In the morning, the dogs started barking. What were dogs even doing in the church? People chased them out, but they came back and continued barking and growling, foam dripping from the corners of their mouths. Rabies, we thought. But then Maria’s son woke up, and don’t tell me the barking had nothing to do with that. Dogs be gifted that way, even if we had no idea what was coming. The boy simply stood up in his casket, the hair at the back of his head slightly flat from lying on the satin pillow, and he looked around with his bleary eyes, surprised to see us, as if he had merely awoken from a long sleep. Dreamless, people said, but how would they know? I don’t remember much of what happened right after. People fell to their knees and prayed, and people fainted, and people screamed. Arms raised to heaven. His mother dropped on him and kissed him all over and cried and yelled. She might have even spoken in tongues—that’s how little of what she said I understood. Then she took a step back and glanced at his brother in the next coffin and the other boy was still dead, like my own son. When the fainted were revived, and the boy helped out of his coffin and hugged and kissed, and the sun was reaching its peak above the church, people started picking up the other coffins and propping them on their shoulders. I jumped to my feet. My legs were bruised from all the kneeling next to my son. “What are you doing?” I asked them. Even I could hear the loose thing in my voice. “Why are you moving them? Where are you taking them?” To the cemetery, they said, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. “But what if?” I asked. “But what if they all come back too?” I was screaming at them now. Let them think the worst of me, what did I care? “You just saw a miracle happen right in front of your eyes. That boy was as cold as stone last night and now he’s up and running about. Who’s to say he’s the only one? Who’s to say they won’t all come back? Is that all the faith you’ve got? Shame on you. Shame on you!” That shut them up good, I’ll tell you that. sister They don’t bury the rest of them. They leave them laid out in the church, their caskets still open. People come and go, glance at them, point at their own among the many bodies, the way people gawk at one among pretty much identical babies in hospital nurseries. Maybe he wasn’t dead, people whisper later, maybe the doctors made a mistake. But no, he was dead. Dead dead, corpse stink, corpse cold, corpse stiffness to his limbs. A startle in his eyes like he’s seen the other side of a door no human should cross and then live to talk about it. The neighbor girl that has the sweets for my little brother visits the next day and I wonder, doesn’t she notice the smell? The lingering smell in our house, the death smell. She only eyes our grandmother crying quietly in the corner like a mourning ghost and doesn’t say a thing. Grandma started crying when we got word of the accident and hasn’t stopped since, not even when her favorite grandchild came back to life. “How’s he doing?” the girl asks my mother. My mother’s eyes are large, with a new sheen. She’s become clumsy. She spills the milk she offers the girl for her coffee, knocks over the cushion from the chair when she tries to sit, scratches herself when she buttons up her blouse. As if her limbs have forgotten how to stay put, be a person. “He just stares out the window, he just stares,” she says, and it’s true. Won’t eat, won’t drink, won’t nothing. But he’d always been the quiet one, I want to say. He always stared out windows. Even at the factory, the supervisors would always tell him off for spacing out and staring at nothing. At the wall, or I don’t know what. At nothing. It was our older brother who was always the joy of life personified. He was the singer, the dancer. The one who woke up before dawn and never complained. The one who brought me flowers when I had my bad days. The one who was first at everything: the work, the hunt, the swim, the drink. I would have gone with him. I would be in a casket next to him if he hadn’t noticed my fever that day, hadn’t insisted I stay behind, hadn’t confiscated my factory ID to keep me from following them to work. Lucky, huh? “I’m so glad he’s back,” the girl mouths quietly before she closes the door behind her. “I am too, I am too,” my mother says in the new out-of-breath manner she speaks these days, constantly running out of air. And yet, why do I still miss him? And why do I hate myself for it? Like he’s back, but I’m not. Like none of us are where he left us. father But someone had to stay with the rest of them. The boy’s father said so, and who could blame him? And if he did it because he thought the rest of them might come back too, or because he just wanted to be with his other son a little bit longer, who could tell? And who could blame him either way? He looks at his other son’s corpse now, still lying in the coffin two days later, his juices slowly seeping into the fine white cloth underneath. There are flowers around his head, rotting lilies that look too much like flesh. There is a blue-green color to his skin now, and he could take the bleeding eyes, he could take the thought of lungs burnt to charcoal inside his son’s body, he could take the thought of him cut open and then sewn back up, but that he cannot take. That color, it does him in. What kind of man does that make him? What kind of father? Sophia is still there, hasn’t left her son’s side for a moment since his own boy came back to life and she didn’t let them move the bodies. He walks over to her and squeezes her shoulder firmly, but not without tenderness. “Sophia,” he says, “it’s time.” And when she doesn’t respond, and just looks at him without understanding, he breaks down and cries. He bends down and hugs her knees. “Please,” he says, “it’s time.” So they take the coffins out of the church in a long line of black-trousered men with white shirts, their shoulders bent under all the weight. It’s not raining, but later, when he thinks back to this moment, he will remember this day wet, pouring, and he will recall with great clarity a cold rain that soaked him all the way through. neighbor girl I liked him well enough before he died, but ever since the accident I found myself unable to stop thinking about him. I spent the first night imagining what it must have been like, all those people on the factory floor, fighting to breathe, their eyes leaking blood. Did they bang on the doors, did they scratch the walls with their nails? Did they reach for each other’s hands? How long did it take? And he, what was he thinking as he died? Did he think of his mother, his father, his sister? Did he try to help his brother before he tried to help himself? Did he think of me at all? Of our kiss under the olive tree, the way the wind brushed against my skirt and lifted it a little and I didn’t cover myself again until I was sure he had seen the brief smile of skin between the top of my socks and the bottom of the hem? I kept thinking about all that during the wake as well, though the ashen tint of his skin made it difficult to remember him as he was when he lived. Funny how this new face that he acquired in death replaced the one I’ve known for so much longer, the one I’ve known my entire life. When he woke up, I felt my face freeze, my blood drain away from my head and rush to my hands, my feet. I fell. I came round thinking I had dreamed it, but they told me I hadn’t, he was still up, walking, breathing, talking in short sentences. I visited his mother the next day, but he didn’t pay me any mind. I went round again that night and threw gravel at his window like we did when we were younger, until he opened it and I slipped inside. I thought his skin looked dull and lifeless, or maybe it was the faint moonlight coming in through the dirty glass. He sat on the bed and I sat next to him and our knees touched already so it didn’t feel weird to take his hand in mine and cradle it on my lap. “How are you?” I asked him and he said, “I’m here,” and I thought that didn’t answer my question, but maybe it did. I smoothed back his hair and tucked it behind his ears. It felt dry and thin. I leant closer to him and almost recoiled as the smell hit me—an earthy smell, like damp soil—but then I pushed through the revulsion and kissed him on the lips. He didn’t kiss me back, but he didn’t withdraw either. He simply looked at me, his eyes large, staring. “What was it like?” I asked him, “Being dead?” “I dream of roots,” he said. his mother Sophia comes to my house to see me, asks if she can see him. Her hair hangs loose and tangled, unwashed. My own does not look much better, I’m sure. Sophia kneels in front of him and holds his hands a bit too long, studying his face. “He’s a miracle,” she says. “Your miracle. How fortunate you are, Maria.” She doesn’t immediately let go when he tries to take his hands away. My miracle. My second one. My first was when I fell pregnant with his brother after years of trying, years of babies leaking out of me like afterthoughts. And this one? What about this one? Does a person really ever get two miracles in a lifetime? My hands tremble when I touch him, and I’m afraid if I breathe too hard around him he might scatter like the dust from a moth’s wings. Everyone wants a piece of him. They bring him gifts—little icons; drawings of ailing body parts, as if he’s a saint, as if he’ll cure them; rings belonging to beloved dead ones. I pile them up in his room until it’s stuffed full, and when I tell them to cut it out and turn them away at the door they gather in my backyard, hold vigil outside his room, grasping candles, praying. Someone comes over to talk politics with my husband—a union representative I’ve never seen before, but with whom my man seems friendly enough. He does not think my son is a miracle at all. He thinks this whole resurrection business might hurt our chances of winning the case against the employer, might make it easy for the lawyers to paint us all as cons and delusional, might rob everyone of their compensation. As if money could ever bring their dead ones back. But then again, what do I know about what it is that brings a person back? On the fourth day, I can no longer ignore the smell. I burned the clothes I put him in for his wake and washed all of his other clothes. I washed the bedsheets and then washed them again. I mopped the floors and dusted down the walls and scoured everything with bleach, so there’s nowhere left to hide now. It’s him. He smells. I’m scared. My mother notices. “Don’t be afraid,” she says. “Go to your son, go to him, go to him,” so I do. I see the girl pining over him and him ignoring her. She acts like a girlfriend, taking his hand and walking him in circles in the yard, arranging his limbs around herself in a mock embrace and him letting her, unresisting, like he’s a doll. I think of my other son, cold in the ground, and I no longer understand how I could have ever felt joy. I am ashamed. I shatter. I loved my other son better, I want to cry, the one who did not come back to life. the scientist It’s his first time in this town, but it’s not the first armpit-of-the-world, losers-and-drunks town he’s seen in his career as a specialist advisor to the insurance company, and this is not the first miracle he’s been called on to flush down the toilet. He inspects the factory and the supposed leak, the boy’s vacated coffin, the church. He even has some of the graves dug up. He notes they got a reporter over, trying to prove the unprovable, no doubt, or at the very least generate some buzz. The boy itself he only meets for a few fleeting minutes, as his mother insists he’s too distressed and not fit to hold long conversations. He notices, admires even, to the extent that professionalism permits, the details of this mise en scène: the boy’s ratty hair, the pale makeup applied to his skin, the smell of decay rubbed onto his skin and then deftly half-masked with a more pleasant scent. Something cheap and floral—elderflower, perhaps, or lily of the valley. He concludes that there is nothing here out of the ordinary—and that the employer’s responsibility in the accident itself has been blown out of proportion. He declares the whole town crooks and charlatans scrambling for attention. Or else for a chance to air their grievances towards their employer, who is simply trying to survive in an unforgiving time for medium-sized businesses. He writes his report and sends it to his employer without delay. The town meets his decision with open scorn. They see him off with raised fists, and he fancies himself a learned man fleeing an angry, unwashed mob, minus the pitchforks. “We’re gonna prove it to you,” they say to him. “You’ll see your error. You’ll see.” The looks on their faces when they say that unsettle him. He gets back into his car feeling mildly threatened, though no threats have been made against his person. On the way back, he tries to make himself feel better by thinking of things he likes: his silk robe de chambre; the smoothness of his dog’s fur under his fingers; the smell of toasting bread in the morning. His heart slows. He is calmer now. Breathing comes easily to him again. The town fades further into the background of his life. He goes on thinking of his favorite things. He tries to remember the taste of his mother’s roast dinner and can’t. the trade unionist I do believe in miracles. I do believe he came back from the dead. I do believe he might even be the key to saving our immortal souls. But not our mortal bodies. People run to the priest asking after salvation and miracles. What good are miracles if they cannot feed and clothe the people, if they cannot help in the fight against what mangles our bodies—and yes, our spirits too—day in, day out? I do believe in miracles. But miracles are exceptions. They are not for everyone. They cannot change the world. And if they cannot change the world, what good are they? the priest’s wife He hasn’t taken a single bite of bread since that boy rose from the dead. He doesn’t sleep and doesn’t speak and doesn’t look me in the eye, and I catch myself wishing that boy had stayed dead and gone. If that makes me a bad person, so be it, that’s between me and the Lord. People keep turning up at our door, asking after him, and I have to send them away with prayer ropes, which I can’t knot fast enough to last me more than an afternoon. The tips of my fingers are raw from constantly working on the rope, and I swear I’m growing cross-eyed from knotting late into the night under the yellow lamp. But I dare not complain. I see his suffering, his crisis. I know he mutters to himself when he thinks I cannot hear. I’m planting basil in the garden when one of the factory men comes running, yelling that little rosy-cheeked Mary had up and died in the night for no good reason at all, and that they need the priest to rule out a supernatural cause of death, whether it might be the Reaper was short a young body. I almost laugh in his face, thinking he’s set his mind on a prank—now, of all times!—a re-enactment of some old wives’ tale from two centuries ago. But the crease in his forehead and the clenched muscles in his jaw set me straight. This is no prank. This is no joke. I am telling the man to calm down, that I’ll let the good priest know and he’ll come as soon as he’s able, that he has not been feeling his best, when my husband bursts out of the house. It’s the first time he’s been outside since the resurrection. He squints at the light. He’s only wearing his long undergarments, not his cassock and not his cap. His hair looks uncombed, disheveled, like a wild, gray mane around his head. The wind blows right that moment and ruffles it even worse, on purpose almost, to lend the scene some gravity, some Biblical air. I see the idea forming behind my husband’s eyes, his way out of his own torment, the solution to the question he has not dared utter all these days, but which I know is there. “It’s the boy,” he says, like a man drowning. “It’s the risen boy’s fault.” friend Years ago, we did that thing young people who love each other fiercely do sometimes, cut the inside of our palms and held them together, mixed our bloods, fancied ourselves brothers, thinking brotherhood trumped friendship. Silly. We may have drifted apart, not seen each other for months at a time, but our hearts grew not an inch more distant than the day we bled for each other. When I got word of the accident, his name numbered among those dead, I squeezed my fist and something in my hand cracked. I left wife and baby and took the first bus back to our hometown, knowing I’d be too late to kiss his cheeks for one last time. And yet, I arrived to something else entirely—my friend on his feet and his family in pieces, his mother terrified of her own son, his father talked out of his mind, and around them a circus, a desperate circus speaking of miracles, of Death shorted and owed, of God’s hand, of tests and faith, of salvation. A whole town gone mad. grandma I cannot hold my tears. Cannot. They stream from my eyes. I’ve always loved that boy much more than I should have. And yet, I see. The silence falls on us slowly. The boy walks into a room and everyone hushes, we hush. We still hold candles and pray, but we avoid his eyes now, that gaze, deep and cold like the grave. I’m boiling wheat berries for the three-day commemoration when we hear about the little girl. And when the rest come running with the priest leading them like a herd, my daughter’s husband meets them outside. He’s nothing but a shadow of himself. Such a tall man, such a cypress, reduced now, a stump. I rush outside too, listen to the priest blame this new death on my grandchild, then blame him for everything. For the overcast skies, the gray sea, the accident itself. “But it can’t be,” I tell him, them. “He couldn’t. Not my grandson.” Could he? Then a crash. Glass breaking. A scream. I go back inside as quickly as I can. The house smells like sugar, masking the smell of damp soil that’s coming from the boy. My daughter on the floor, the boiling pot upturned, her hands burned by the molten sugar, plates shattered at her feet. The boy is reaching for his mother and she’s clutching a piece of broken glass to make him stay away. Terrified of her own son. She’s grasping the shard so hard it cuts her. She bleeds. The boy stares at her, his eyes unfocused. “Mother,” he whispers. A stranger’s voice. An unkind voice. Almost in reply, my daughter gags. And I know, now. Finally, I see it all for what it is. This is not him. Not my boy. Not my grandson. the boy Lazarus Nobody touches me anymore. Not even the girl with the broken heart who says we are in love. Mother tells me I came back. Back from where, I try to ask, but my mouth is full, packed with soil, and words too large, they do not fit. Back from where? No answers to questions not asked. Mother fades. Father fades. Grandmother turns into a river. The others are laid in the ground, far away but not too far. I hear the songs they whisper to the soil, made up of names strung one after the other like knots on a long, long thread. And a pause where my name should be. Why did I come back and not she, or he, or they? My thoughts recede. A thin veil unfolds between me and the world. My sister, these people, their gifts, their candles. Their edges blur soft. Blink and morning has melted into evening, night blooms into dawn. Then people argue in the back yard. Mention the devil. Someone breaks, something bleeds into the ground and I try, I try, I do. To be. People shout, plead, reconcile. Their faces contort into masks I do not recognize. Is this Father, is this Mother? This veil over my eyes, is it a shroud? Has it always been a shroud? Their hands reach, reach, reach. I let them touch me. everyone In the end, we roll him in a white sheet and take him down to the sea. His friend tries to stop us, looks to the reporter for support, finds none. Why does he worry? He thinks we mean the boy harm, but we don’t, do we? We plunge him in the water. A baptism, we say. A washing, a trial, an anointing. Does it matter that we don’t all agree on the term or what it’s for? We hold his head under the water, the grieving mothers, the tired fathers, the heartbroken, the bitter, the believers, the hopeful still, we hold his head under, all of us. At first he doesn’t resist, but then he starts thrashing about, and there is an impossible strength in his legs beyond that of a boy who came back from the dead. For a moment, our breath catches on the what if, what if. But then we roll our sleeves and breathe through our mouths. “Our miracle,” we say and dunk his head again with steady hands, until the thrashing weakens and then stops. “Our very own miracle.” The post PseudoPod 749: Notes on a Resurrection appeared first on PseudoPod.
30 minutes | 2 months ago
PseudoPod 748: The Infinite Error
Authors : Jon Padgett and Matthew M. Bartlett Narrator : Jon Padgett Host : Alasdair Stuart Audio Producer : Chelsea Davis Discuss on Forums “The Infinite Error” was originally published in the collaborative collection The Latham-Fielding Liaison The Infinite Error by Jon Padgett and Matthew M. Bartlett “Everything exists; nothing exists. Either formula affords a like serenity. The man of anxiety, to his misfortune, remains between them, trembling and perplexed, forever at the mercy of a nuance, incapable of gaining a foothold in the security of being or in the absence of being.” —E.M. Cioran, The Trouble with Being Born Of course, I would have preferred to defecate at home in the privacy and comfort of my own bathroom, but my bowels refuse to move for the first two hours I am awake. I suffer from insomnia and can achieve a deep sleeping state only in the very early hours of the morning. Forcing myself awake before 6am is a misery, so I simply wait to use the office facilities. As you know, the office has only one lavatory, which is miniscule. The entrance has a swinging, louvered door that cannot be locked, and it contains a single stall. A unisex facility, there is no urinal present, so if the stall is occupied, one must wait. Each weekday for years now, I have arrived at work fifteen minutes early so I can enter and use this toilet without disturbance. Why? I don’t like beginning my day in a negative frame of mind. It is not rage that I feel whenever I enter the lavatory to find the stall door closed, but it is a proximal feeling. Also, I cannot abide sitting on a warm toilet seat, let alone being assailed by the stench of another body’s recent evacuations. And then there are the particles that they so often leave behind in the toilet’s bowl. You would think it a simple courtesy: a second flush. Why, I myself have been known to wait until the water recedes, and wipe at the leavings with a wad of toilet tissue sufficient to provide an unbreachable border between my hand and the porcelain. To leave behind any trace of my presence would be simply out of the question. But to my issue. The morning the trouble began, I was first in the office and first in the stall. I didn’t hear anyone enter the room. I knew someone had because their smartphone or tablet was playing a loud video or audiobook—a tinny, ostentatious male voice, part televangelist and part local sports commentator, the heavy reverb of the lavatory distorting the voice so that I could not at first understand its words. I abhor the kind of person who plays portable music or video devices without the decency of using ear or headphones—as if anyone else wants to be infected with that nonsense. This, of course, made occupying the one and only lavatory stall in the office all the more delicious. I felt a jolt of fierce glee. How does it feel to be on the other side of the stall? I asked silently. I awaited the fading of both footsteps and that obnoxious, tinny voice, for the sound of the louvered, lavatory door swinging open and closed, leaving me again alone to do my business. But, I realized with dismay, the tinny voice was instead drawing nearer, growing so loud that it sounded like it was emanating just from the other side of the stall door. “Everything exists; nothing exists,” the voice said, throaty and sardonic; burbling. “The infinite error. Speaking of which, here’s a story for you.” As you can imagine, I was not amused. In fact, I was disturbed—particularly since I was sitting on the toilet defecating, nude but for my shoes and socks. Yes, you heard me, and, no, this, is nothing to laugh at. It is in fact yet another reason why I arrive early for work to use the office facilities, well before any of our coworkers. I do not wear clothing when I defecate, whether at home or elsewhere. I began this practice at home, years ago, for comfort’s sake, wishing to spread my legs out without the constriction of pants or underwear. But in a public lavatory, disrobing is a hygienic necessity. I do not understand why everyone does not follow this sensible practice. Do I want my pant legs or underwear in contact with the grimy, urine-splashed floor of a public restroom? Certainly not. Why take off my shirt as well? First of all, when I am at the office, I wear both a button down and an undershirt. I remove them both before I defecate in any public facility to avoid the not uncommon splash-back effect, particularly experienced after flushing. I cannot imagine why this is amusing to you. This splash-back effect is real, as I am quite sure you are aware if you will only consider it. In any case, I trust you will keep my private, sanitary habits to yourself. Though the office lavatory is modest, the inside of the stall door does include a metal hanger, and I always place my clothing there while I relieve myself. The whole process takes time, of course, since I have to remove my shoes briefly before removing my pants and underwear, careful not to touch the befouled bathroom floor with socked feet. After removing all other pieces of clothing, I don my shoes again, and hang up my button down, undershirt, underwear and pants safely. Why would I keep my shoes and socks on while defecating? I would think it is rather obvious. Shoe soles, not bare or socked feet, are meant to be in contact with unclean surfaces. But back to the morning in question. To summarize: I was sitting nude, save my shoes and socks, on the toilet in the office lavatory, early in the morning, well before our coworkers were scheduled to arrive, and someone else had entered it while I was defecating, apparently playing their electronic device just on the other side of the stall door. “A rabbi and a priest were on a street corner together one day on the way to an interdenominational meeting,” the voice said, with tacky enthusiasm. “As they were waiting for a car, the rabbi was suddenly moved by the spirit of God and fell on his knees. ‘Oh God!’ he exclaimed. ‘I am nothing!’” Wonderful, I remember thinking. A religious fanatic. (No offense, if you happen to be religious.) The office lavatory has a gap between door and the thin, slab of marble wall. I tried angling my head so that I could see who was standing on the other side of the door through the gap, but I was unsuccessful at spotting even a shadow, never mind a single, foreign body part. “The priest, witnessing this expression of piety and feeling the spirit of God move within him also fell on his knees, crying, ‘Oh God! I am nothing!’” This was enough. I cleared my throat loudly, but the voice continued. “A street sweeper, cleaning the pavement nearby saw the rabbi and the priest prostrated together and was moved by the spirit of God as well. ‘Oh God!’ he shouted. ‘I am nothing!’ The priest looked over at the rabbi. ‘Look who thinks he’s nothing,’ he said.” “Privacy, please!” I blurted out, too loudly. Silence. The recording must have finished or perhaps the unseen individual had turned it off. At least a minute passed without a sound of apparent movement. Careful to avoid touching the floor, I grabbed the bottom of the stall door and looked under it. No one was on the other side. I finished up on the toilet, donned my clothes, and opened the door. No one was there. Perhaps, I remember thinking, whoever it was snuck out. But I was skeptical about that possibility. I had been paying close attention to all the lavatory-related sounds when that recording or video stopped playing. It struck me that I might have been hearing some random broadcast over an office intercom and that the echoing distortions created some kind of auditory illusion. Do you know anything about this? I have been disquieted this morning, scanning the faces of our coworkers for signs that I have been the subject of some odious office prank. Things have worsened since we last communicated. Each day I have entered the office lavatory, earlier and earlier, only to find the stall door closed first thing in the morning. Also, as soon as I make it far enough inside to see that the toilet is occupied, that same, tinny, burbling voice starts up again as if triggered somehow by my presence: “Everything exists; nothing exists. The infinite error. Speaking of which, here’s a story for you.” I think it must be a… What do they call it? A podcast? The voice always begins with the same intro but the content afterwards is always different. But I never wait to hear its inane anecdote or joke of the day. Each morning, I leave, banging open the lavatory’s louvered door, unnerved and angry. Each morning, I walk half a mile to the local Seven Eleven near the park to use their shoddy facility (I hesitate to grace it with the word lavatory)—sometimes barely able to hold my churning bowels in before making it there. This, not incidentally, is why I have been uncharacteristically late to work in recent days. The convenience store attendant, a surly, unkempt woman with a lit cigarette hanging out of her mouth (in clear violation of the city’s smoking ordinance) refused to hand me the lavatory key, day after day, before I purchased some tacky knickknack from her counter. That woman hates me for some reason, and I can assure you the feeling is mutual. The Seven Eleven restroom is filthy, making the office lavatory, which is cleaned weekly, seem pristine in comparison. It goes without saying that there is no hangar within the Seven Eleven toilet door, which is off one of its hinges and cannot close. I was forced to hang my clothing over the wall of the stall itself, and dust and detritus whose contents I don’t want to think about has stained, and therefore ruined, multiple pairs of my shirts and pants and underwear. The cost of continually replacing them, as you well know, is one I can ill-afford. The last time I walked to the Seven Eleven, a few days back, my clothing slipped from the stall door onto the foul, stinking floor while I was defecating. I was forced to don the polluted apparel, each item of which had soaked in some stained looking urine, and take the bus back home, seething in rage and disgust. Once I was home, I disrobed and threw the tainted clothing into the garbage. Then I called in sick for the first time in over a decade. Though I needed to relieve myself when I had entered that repulsive facility, my nerves now made it impossible for me to do so, even in the comfort of home. Yes, I am constipated. I have been for some days now, thanks to a work situation that is quickly becoming intolerable. Please remove that smirk from your face and help me for once. I am now quite certain our coworkers have been having a private joke at my expense. I have noticed them examining me when they think I am buried in my reports, whispering to each other when they think I am not listening. I have noticed their knowing smirks as they greet me, nodding with suppressed hilarity. There is no need for you to deny what I know is true. Yesterday, I sat in the lobby outside of the office lavatory for half an hour, waiting for the stall-prankster to leave. The whole while I heard his (or her) electronic device droning on through the louvres of the door. I eventually had to leave for my cubicle to keep from being late again. I made certain our coworkers were all accounted for in their respective cubicles that morning, so I can only guess that they either put an outside third party up to the gag or that they had rigged some automatic, electronic contraption to implement it. I thought about taking another sick day, but I did not want to give our fellow employees the satisfaction. Why would they do something like this? You tell me. Perhaps they resent the fact that I have no interest in socializing with them. You know how I feel about this. When I am at work, I am at work. It is no time for the kind of frivolous chit chat, the idle office gossip, which they all seem to adore. I abhor distractions when I am concentrating, and, as you know well, I am not paid enough to fake social niceties. Not unlikely they want to push me to some kind of breaking point for their own amusement or perhaps even to further their own careers. I know a few who I am certain would like to have my job. I do not pretend to understand office politics or shenanigans. Judging from the giggling I often hear coming from the cubicles around me, I suspect the word has gotten around about my toilet proclivities—the ones I have expressed to no one in the office but you; the ones I asked specifically to be kept private between the two of us. But more on that later. I want to talk about what happened just this morning. I got up exceedingly early—waking at 5am in spite of having gotten only an hour of sleep. And even that hour was disturbed by a terrible dream. I was in the stall, doing my business. I saw with terror that I was fully clothed. Looking down under the stall door, I saw a profusion of shod feet facing the stall, still and silent. I held my breath. Held my bowels. The silence was unbearable. I knew that terrible voice would start up. Maybe this time it would be a chorus of voices. Instead, my alarm sounded, causing me to fall scrambling out of the bed and spill onto the floor. The rest of the morning was a rush to get out the door. The constipation I have been experiencing for the last week shifted into a desperate need to defecate as I sat on the bus on my way to work. At every lurching stop, I felt my bowels loosen, their contents shift and shimmy. I entered the office shortly after 6am, rushing awkwardly to the lavatory, thighs and buttocks clenched to keep everything in, a full hour and a half before I usually enter it. As you might expect, the stall was closed. “Everything exists; nothing exists,” the voice said, more mocking than ever. “The infinite error. Speaking of which, here’s a story for you. “ Unlike on the other days, I did not leave the lavatory at this point but stood in front of the stall door, stomach sour and burbling. “This is not amusing,” I said, rapping on the door. “I need to use this toilet now.” There was no response—not even a resumption of the latest lavatory monologue from the electronic device. My bowels felt like they were on the brink of some epic calamity. “I am ill,” I said, rapping harder. The stall door—unlocked after all—swung open with my last rap, and I opened it the rest of the way. The toilet was unoccupied. I would have looked for hidden speakers, trip wire devices and the like, but I had not been untruthful about my condition. I was ill with severe gastrointestinal distress, and I had not a moment to lose. I removed my pants, trying and failing to avoid contact with the floor, which looked as if it had missed last week’s scheduled cleaning. There was a deep, meaty stench in the air. If I had been in less of a panic, I would have removed my shoes first. As it was, I struggled to retain my balance while I pulled my pants over legs and shoes, stepping on and befouling a pant leg at one point. I settled on rolling the bottoms of my pant cuffs up several times so that they rested above my ankles, well away from the lavatory floor. Then I began removing my button down shirt and undershirt, especially important since I felt like the diarrhea that now was inevitable would certainly produce an unusually significant splash-back effect. Desperate, I threw the wadded up shirts at the stall’s hanger, but I missed, and they fell in a heap on the filthy, tiled floor. My bowels were close to involuntarily letting loose, and I just managed to pull a couple of strips of toilet paper off the roller to set them on the black seat (I hate those—impossible to gauge how clean or dirty they are), and sat down. I did have diarrhea, but first came the rock hard stool pebbles, which plopped one after another, producing significant splash-back severe enough to befoul my posterior and my thighs. “Everything exists; nothing exists,” the tinny voice said, louder than ever, just outside of the stall door. “The infinite error. Speaking of which, here’s a story for you. Splash-back is the worst in Germany, where toilets have a little shelf on which you defecate.” “Hello?” I asked, startled. I had diarrhea-induced cold sweats and was not in any condition to leave the stall. “Once a man in Germany made the mistake of staying seated when he flushed, and, when the water hit his shit, it splashed up into the basket of his pants and around his ankles. What a drag,” the voice said, burbling with a kind of mordant glee. “Do not think for a second that I do not know who you are, that I do not know what you are doing,” I said, moaning. Yes, I mean you. Do not think that I did not notice that “splash-back” comment. I am on to you, friend. “Everything exists; nothing exists. The infinite error. Speaking of which, here’s a story for you. Once there was an Italian woman named Mariangela,” you said, apparently ignoring me. “In some places there they have stalls that look a bit like showers (the locals call them The Porcelain Hole) with two grooved footprints where you place your feet and a hole underneath in which to piss and shit. The idea is that you would squat down, but there are no railings to hold on to, so you have to have pretty good balance. Mariangela, who was a heavy, middle aged woman at the time, dressed to the nines in fur and heels, slipped and jammed her ankle in the old Porcelain Hole, then twisted as she fell and spiral-shattered her shin and femur all the way up to the hip. Spiral-shattered. That’s what they call it.” I was enduring another bout of very watery diarrhea, along with severe gastrointestinal pains. I imagined my liver and kidneys liquefying, passing through a colon that was itself collapsing as diarrhea spewed relentlessly from me. “Please,” I said, unable to keep the abject hysteria and despair out of my voice. “Imagine that sound,” you replied, and I cannot tell anymore if your voice is emanating from outside or inside of this stall or from within this toilet on which I am curled up, “between the bone shattering and the woman hitting the cold tile floor. Mariangela was big and always wore a fur coat that made her look far bigger. Mariangela couldn’t make it to church, and the priest said that the congregation should pray for her, but all they could think about was that fur coat soaking up all the piss and filthy shit-water in the old Porcelain Hole. Just soaking and soaking it in.” “God,” I bellow, slipping on the slick, black toilet seat and falling onto the soiled lavatory floor. “Stop. Just stop.” But you continue. “What’s worse, friend? The spiral-fractured femur, being found with your dress hiked up over your ass on the floor, your giant, real fur coat soaking up a week’s worth of shit stained piss, or just lying like that there for who knows how long before you are found?” I am reaching up, rolling great rounds of toilet tissue around my right hand now. I am racked with chills, stomach still clenched, struggling to remove myself from these filthy, cold, wet tiles. I am determined to escape this lavatory, to expunge your tinny, mocking voice that seems to haunt it. I make it back to the warm, sweaty toilet seat. I wipe and flush to no avail. The toilet is stopped up. And it is overflowing. I stagger nude, save for my socks and shoes, from the restroom into the carpeted hall. I am shouting. I don’t know what I’m saying. I don’t even know if there are words. The fluorescent lights are punishingly bright. I will stalk cubicle to office to closet to conference room. I will find you. I will drag you back to the lavatory. I will push your face into the muck, straddling your back, making sure your lips and tongue are coated. Go ahead. Call security. Call the police. We have time before they get here. An infinity of time. The infinite error. Speaking of which, I have a story for you. The post PseudoPod 748: The Infinite Error appeared first on PseudoPod.
39 minutes | 2 months ago
PseudoPod 747: Keeping House
Author : Sarah Day Narrator : Megan Leigh Host : Alasdair Stuart Audio Producer : Chelsea Davis Discuss on Forums PseudoPod 747: Keeping House is a PseudoPod original. Keeping House by Sarah Day “Isn’t it cute?” Keishya, the realtor, spread her arms in the center of the kitchen like a starlet in center stage. “It’s a killer find.” Lydia gingerly put her purse down on the counter. They’d seen three houses already today, all of them a bit too small or a bit too pricey or a bit too far from her work. Her feet hurt. This house was cute, she had to admit. It had high ceilings and buttery yellow walls, hardwood floors, lots of cabinet space, a study where Matt could work on his electronics projects, and, if the listing was to be believed, a full basement with washer and dryer for laundry. Keishya watched Matt poking his head into one of the bedrooms. She smiled at Lydia. “You two are a cute couple. Is this your first place together?” “Yeah.” “Oooh, big step!” Keishya winked conspiratorially. “You gotta be careful, moving in with a man—make sure he pulls his weight around here.” Lydia smiled shyly. “There’s a downstairs, right?” Matt asked from the bedroom. “Sure is!” The toothpaste-advertisement smile on Keishya’s face tilted a little bit. “It’s… not as polished as the rest of the house, but let’s have a look.” Lydia followed them down a flight of creaking wooden stairs near the back door. She’d had a friend once who was really into feng shui and said that staircases were like funnels for energy, sucking it to the bottom like water flows downhill. She understood where that particular belief came from as she descended, the air cooling and a tinge of mildew creeping into her nose. The basement followed the same floor plan as the house above. The skin and muscle of hardwood floors and cheery paint were gone; down here, the house was reduced to its bones, a series of interlocking concrete rooms. Wires traced up the walls like veins, each ending in a single bulb that dangled in the center of the room. In one room, a shining new washer and dryer huddled next to an ancient utility sink big enough to immerse a pillow, wash all your bras at once, or drown someone in. Rust flaked the circumference of the drain. Lydia shivered. “Babe, this is awesome.” Matt patted the washing machine affectionately. “It’ll be so easy for us to do laundry!” “For me to do laundry, you mean,” she said. Matt winced, and she squeezed his arm to reassure him. “What’s in these other rooms?” she asked. “Nothing. You could do anything with them—storage, a practice space, a yoga studio?” Keishya twinkled at Matt. “A man cave for gaming?” The squeaks of their shoes’ rubber soles sounded back from the concrete walls. The lighting was like something out of a grindhouse movie, and the whispering echoes were eerie. Lydia checked over her shoulder. The rooms were separated by doorway-sized openings with no lintels or doors. The absence of fixtures made it feel less like a house; it was like it had grown in this configuration, as though she was moving through a cow’s multiple stomachs. Matt and Keishya’s voices receded behind her. It felt so much bigger down here than the house upstairs—it must be because there was no furniture. Her eye fell on something in the next room, narrowly illuminated by a slice of light from behind her. The floor in that room was a different texture from the rest of the basement. It caught the light from the bulb over Lydia’s shoulder and held it, pulling it in gooey lines across the ground the way an oily puddle reflects the lights of passing cars. Lydia moved cautiously into the room and bent to brush her fingers against the surface. They came away wet and tingly, the way her face felt at night after she spread chemical exfoliant across her skin. “Lydia?” Matt and Keishya were standing in the doorway. Somehow she’d come much farther into the room than she’d thought. “Whatcha doin’ back here, babe?” Lydia squinted, her eyes adjusting to the light. “The floor… I think it’s wet back here. Is there a leak?” “A leak? Uh oh.” Keishya bustled past her, a look of businesslike concern on her face. She squatted down and patted the concrete perfunctorily, then stood up all smiles. “Nope! Floor’s just fine.” Matt ignored her. He went into the basement room and ran a hand along a wall. His face was distant and unfocused, like he was listening to something she couldn’t hear. He smiled. The dark room yawned out beyond them and Lydia felt a little dizzy. She had the sensation of standing on the edge of a cliff looking down. The floor was smooth and uninterrupted. It blurred out beyond the reach of the light. Keishya was staring at them both expectantly, her perpetual smile going a little stale. “How long has the house been empty?” Lydia asked, more to fill the silence than out of real curiosity. The realtor was clearly happy to get away from discussion of a leaky basement. “You know, I can’t say. I just started showing it last week, to a single guy and a little family with a dog, but… a couple months? I think that’s right?” She laughed awkwardly. “Sorry, I can’t remember. I’m honestly showing a ton right now and it’s hard to keep track. In this market, I’m surprised it hasn’t rented already.” Matt turned back to Lydia. He was still smiling. “We’ve gotta take it, babe. It’s such a nice house.” Lydia looked at the light bleeding down from the staircase out of the basement, thought of the sunny kitchen, ran the mental calculation for her share of the rent, and agreed. It would be a bit of a stretch financially, but it had plenty of space and Matt would love having a place to do his electronics projects. And it was a nice house. As they went back upstairs, she heard a contented sigh from the basement, like water settling in the pipes. They moved in a week later. Their first meal in the new house was takeout pizza and beer, and Lydia took the following day off work to unpack. She wanted to cook dinner that night, but somehow all the kitchen boxes had ended up in the study, so she ended up unpacking everything in both rooms trying to find the things she needed. After dinner, she looked at the sink, swollen with seemingly every dish in the kitchen, and experienced a moment of disorientation. The sleek white countertops were buried under greasy pans and bowls with webs of salad dressing lacing their interiors. Had she actually used all these dishes? She couldn’t remember, but she must have. She chalked it up to the chaos of moving. I must be more tired than I thought. Matt was parked on the couch, a pint glass dangling from his fingers. A TV show burbled out of his laptop. In half an hour or so, he’d lumber up and to bed, or into the study to tinker with some electronics project, and the dishes would still be there in the morning. Lydia’s back ached from moving boxes all day, but she knew he was tired too. Maybe they could do it together. “Babe, do you wanna—?” As if on cue, Matt stood up, kissed her on the cheek absently, and went into the study. Lydia stood alone in the empty kitchen and tried to exhale the tension out of her shoulders and hips and knees. Matt had never been great about housework at his old place, either… but he’d also been at work all day, and she couldn’t fault him for being tired. Moving was stressful. The kitchen cabinets were a soft, creamy white. She ran her fingertips over one of them, the paint so smooth and even she couldn’t feel the woodgrain. It was such a nice house. It would take so little work to keep it that way. She pulled on a pair of rubber gloves. That night she dreamed there was a woman in the kitchen. She stood at the sink, using a wire brush on a long handle to scrub something tenacious out of the bottom of a pot. Lydia stood behind her. She couldn’t see the woman’s face. The sink was full of hot soapy water. Steam fogged the windows, diffusing the light. The kitchen was sun-washed in gold and white, beautifully illuminated like she imagined the inside of an egg would be just as the chick began to shatter it. She perceived the kitchen as one gleaming, cohesive being, sink and counters and water and pot all the same thing, all joined somehow. It was like the woman was washing a large, warm animal. The woman moved woodenly, mechanically, an enormous version of the paper dolls Lydia had played with as a girl, their limbs jointed with shiny brass rivets. Her scrubbing arm rotated ceaselessly. Lydia watched her for a long time, hypnotized by the perfect interlocking circles of shoulder, elbow, wrist. The woman’s shoulders shuddered, either with the effort or because she was crying. The next morning, there were dishes in the kitchen. “Did you make breakfast?” she asked Matt as they were drinking coffee. It didn’t look like breakfast dishes—there were pots and pans like he’d cooked something elaborate, not the usual one pan from making eggs and bacon. “What?” He looked up from his espresso. “No. I thought you did those dishes last night?” She had done those dishes last night. She was certain of it. “I did. I—” Had she? She had gone to bed late. She must have been tired. Could she have missed some? The pots and pans sat cold and sticky on the countertop, belying her memory. “I… I must have missed some. Weird. I’ll do them now.” Matt kissed her and grabbed his backpack to head to the train station. Lydia was late to work. She dreamed about a different woman. This one was raven-haired and thick. Her mouth was a coral-colored smear, her lipstick blurred and exhausted. She was on her knees in the bathtub, working the grout around the edge with a toothbrush. She’d had a manicure, but it was flaking and ruined. The skin on her hands was pink and tight-looking from using cleaners without gloves. As Lydia watched, she looked up from her work and spoke. She had a thick eastern European accent. Lydia couldn’t understand her; the words floated out of the woman’s mouth like soap bubbles, fading out with satiny pops in the air between them. She wasn’t really speaking to Lydia—she was looking in Lydia’s direction, but addressing her words to someone behind her. Lydia turned, but as she turned she woke up. The laundry wasn’t getting done. She didn’t know why. She did a load after work every night, but the hamper was always overflowing. She had known Matt was a bit of a clotheshorse, but she couldn’t believe the two of them owned so much clothing. She’d asked him if he’d found another box while unpacking and dumped it in the laundry without telling her, but he said he hadn’t. It was as if the washing machine was releasing generations of previous tenants’ lost socks and underwear little by little into Matt and Lydia’s clothes every time she washed a load. The little zippered bags she used to wash her bras and stockings and blouses for work had gone missing in the move, and after a month of living in the house they still hadn’t turned up. She kept washing the delicates by hand in the bathroom sink and going to work with damp waterlines showing through her clothes. That didn’t make sense either; even hanging on a line in the mildewy basement, it shouldn’t have taken them so long to dry. “Have you seen my delicates bags?” She was elbow-deep in hot water, scrubbing a period stain out of a pair of formerly white lace panties. The sound of the running tap drowned out her voice. “What?” Her bangs stuck to her forehead in the steam. Exasperated, she pushed them away with a wet hand, cranked the faucet off. “The bags I use to wash my bras. I can’t find them.” “Dunno, babe. You gonna come watch the show?” Matt was in the living room in front of the TV. He had said something about making dinner tonight, but his version of ‘making dinner’ usually translated to ‘ordering a pizza.’ “I need clothes for work tomorrow, so, no?” She sounded like a jerk and she knew it, but she was tired and stressing about the next day already. Matt’s position on the couch irritated her, too—she knew her laundry was her responsibility, but it seemed like she’s been doing his as often as hers recently, not to mention the mysterious extra socks and panties and jeans that kept showing up. She felt like she’d been making endless trips into the basement, every basket heavier than the last. Matt sighed audibly and cracked open a beer. There was a pile of mail waiting when she got home from work the next day. She had to push the door open with her shoulder to move the detritus from in front of the door. Lydia dropped her purse in the front entrance and groaned. Envelopes and coupon booklets and fliers and ads for local businesses and small phone books scattered like leaves around her feet. This was way more mail than they should have been able to accrue in a day—had they missed some deliveries? Had the labyrinthine systems of the postal service finally gotten their mail forwarding right and delivered the last month’s worth of mail from their old addresses? Where had it all come from? She scooped up the closest armful and carried it awkwardly over to the couch to sort. “How was your day?” Matt asked from the study. “Terrible. I’m behind on everything at work and my manager noticed and I have to do laundry again and now there’s a shit-ton of mail. I don’t know where it came from. I just feel like everything’s a mess.” “You know…” she looked up and found him standing in the doorway, a dark beer cradled in one hand, the other cupped around the doorframe. He stroked the wood as he talked, absentminded and loving, the way he’d pet a dog. “You’ve been really stressed about the house lately, babe. Have you thought about just taking a week or two off work to just… stay in? Get it all in gear?” She had, actually, but resented the suggestion when it came from him. “I don’t want to compromise my career just because the house is a mess, okay?” “Okay.” He smiled. “I just love how much you care about keeping the house, and if you need some time off to focus on that, it’s okay. You’re so great with money, I bet you can make it work.” He went back into the study. Lydia sat on the couch amid stacks of bills and promotional offers and advertisements and swallowed a lump in her throat. Matt was so nice to her, even when she was stressed out. His suggestions weren’t ever quite what she wanted to hear, but he was so reasonable it was hard to fault him. “I wish you’d help me,” she whispered, but the empty room didn’t respond. She dreamed about a blue-eyed woman in the bedroom, folding sheets. Lydia stood in the doorway and watched as she flicked a flat sheet up into the air, filling the space between them with a billow of fabric, and then caught it by its corners, tucking it neatly into a series of smaller and smaller squares. As the sheet shrank between them, Lydia saw the pattern of oblong red bruises on the woman’s forearms in patterns of threes and fours, like someone had grabbed her, grabbed her and clutched her, desperate not to let her go. Lydia didn’t go to work the next day. Instead, she took a sick day, filled a bucket with hot water and castile soap and scrubbed all the windows, then realized how dusty the sills and doorframes and baseboards were, and while she was doing the baseboards, noticed the floors. It was exhausting but also soothing—although to be honest, she couldn’t much tell the difference between exhausted and relaxed anymore. They had lived here for months already, but it felt like they had just arrived. It seemed like everywhere she looked, there was something the house needed done. She found herself in the kitchen, looking at the stairway down into the basement. Her back ached from stooping. The faucet in the utility sink dripped, the distorted echo coming up the stairs as a burbling growl. She needed to do something down there, but she couldn’t remember what. “Hey, given any thought to dinner?” “Jesus Christ!” Lydia saw white. “Are you kidding me? I just spent an hour washing the floors!” Matt stared at her from the living room and shame dropped onto her like a weighted blanket. Her ears rang. The palm of her hand throbbed against a cabinet door. Had she just slammed it shut? She never did stuff like that. “I’m sorry.” Her voice wobbled. “I’m sorry. I’m just really tired and I’ve been so stressed at work and I keep having these bad dreams and… I just, I feel like I do everything to clean up around here and it never actually gets done. I wish I wasn’t the one doing it all.” “Hey, I did the hand-washing!” he pointed at the drying rack beside the sink, where four small tulip glasses glistened in the overhead light. “I know. I just…” She didn’t know how to explain that the floors and the laundry and the cooking and the mail and the unpacking and the windows and the tidying and the dusting wasn’t the same as washing the glasses he drank whiskey out of. She didn’t want to broach the topic of who was working more at what—he would have said that rewiring lights in the closet was work just like doing the laundry was, but the difference was that he liked electronics, and neither of them liked laundry. “Look, if you’re so concerned about all the housework getting done, why not just get a part-time job? You’re always complaining about being behind at work anyway. You could quit the nine-to-five and spend more time here. It’s obviously a bigger priority for you than work right now anyway. Maybe then you’d chill out a little.” Shaking his head, Matt walked out of the room. Lydia stared at the empty sink, trying not to cry. The porcelain gleamed, the same white as a watching eye. He avoided her for two days after that—Matt’s biggest flaw in relationship conflicts was a predisposition to the silent treatment. Lydia spent the weekend feeling alone while he worked by himself. Once she thought he spoke to her, could have sworn she heard him ask “You hungry?” but when she peeked into the study, he was sitting silently at his desk, looking at the wall. One of her girlfriends called with an invitation to brunch, and she declined, worried about hurting his feelings worse by leaving. Instead, she took down some curtains, ran them through the wash a couple times. Who knew after three months of living here, they’d be so dusty? Had it only been three months? She had to check the date. It felt like longer, but it also felt like yesterday. She was sleeping so poorly the days were blurring together. She stared through the window in the washing machine’s door, watching the curtains orbit slowly, suspended in a haze of soapy water. Her face reflected wetly in the door. She looked worn and lined, but maybe that was just distortion from the curved surface. Or was she really that tired? Was she crying? She leaned closer. A dark shape moved in the reflection behind her face. She startled, trying to turn, and ended up falling, half on her side, her back against the washing machine. A woman stood in the doorway, brown-haired and ashen-faced. Her eyes were sunk in sleepless hollows. She pointed to her left, deeper into the basement, toward the empty back room where Lydia’d thought there was a leak. Her hair rose in a corona around her head like she was underwater. She opened her mouth to speak, her jaw working soundlessly. The inside of her mouth was inky black, her dry tongue curled inside like worn leather. “MATT!” He met her at the top of the basement stairs and she fell into him, gibbering with terror. She didn’t know what to say, how to explain that she’d just seen something out of her nightmares in real waking day, so she settled on: “There’s someone in the basement!” He pushed past her, pounding down the stairs, and she staggered to the sink and filled a glass with water. Her hands shook so badly she spilled half of it. She stared into the drain, which looked blankly back at her, a single dark pupil in the sink’s white eye. Water gurgled in the depths of the sink and she thought of blood slurping through veins. Matt was back, stomping heavily up the stairs. “Babe, you okay?” “Where is she?” Lydia met him in the doorway to the basement, craned her neck to see around him. She fully expected to see a spectral shape emerging out of the darkness behind him. He gave her a tight smile. He was breathing hard, and she could tell that he was annoyed, regardless of her fear. “There’s no one down there, babe.” She stared at him, disbelieving. “What?” “There’s no one in the basement.” “Yes there was! It was a—” the word ghost combined with nightmare and died on her tongue. Matt’s face was turning red. “Look, okay, I’m here, you can give it a rest now.” “What are you talking about?” “Come on, this is sad. Don’t lie to me about shit like that just because you want attention. You really freaked me out!” “What? No, there’s someone down there, there’s really someone, a woman, I’m not—I’m not lying to you, Matt, I really saw—!” “Would you just, like, stop being hysterical for a second? Fuck.” “Why won’t you believe me?” “Because there’s nothing there!” He ran his hands through his hair. “I don’t know what’s up with you, Lydia! You’ve been a huge bitch ever since we moved in together! Is this your anxiety? What’s your problem?” “What’s my problem? I’ve barely been sleeping, I do all the housework, I have a real job too, you might remember—you know what, screw you!” “That would be a nice change, too!” Lydia stomped into the bedroom and slammed the door, trembling with fury and terror. The windows vibrated softly in their frames. She had the sudden unbidden image of a cat purring. “McNulty Realty.” “Keishya, hi. It’s Lydia Downs, you might remember, I rented a house from you with my boyf—” “Oh Lydia, hi! How are you? How’s the house?” Lydia tapped a pen against the coffee table to disguise the fact that her whole body was trembling. She hadn’t slept in a day and a half and she was jittery with caffeine. “It’s great! Great. I was just uh. I was wondering.” She heard her voice sliding up in pitch and swallowed against the feeling that birds were about to explode through her mouth. “We found some stuff in a closet? I think a tenant might have left it, maybe. I was just wondering if you had contact info for any of the previous people who had lived in the house.” “Oh, wow, okay! That’s real nice of you. Let me just pull some stuff up on the computer… I can see if we have forwarding addresses or anything like that and you can come drop the stuff off at our office, how does that sound?” “Fine. That’s fine. I just… I just need to know who lived here before us. Was it a woman?” “Just a sec…” Silence stretched out over the line. Lydia stared through the living room into the kitchen, at the top of the basement stairs. She would have to do laundry soon. “Lydia? You there?” Keishya’s voice was different. “I’m here.” “I, uh. I don’t know how to tell you this. The last tenants were a couple, man and woman, but… only he moved out.” Lydia’s mouth went dry. “She disappeared. Annie Harrison. There’s a link to a missing person’s report and everything. Wow, how awful. I had no idea.” Lydia pulled her laptop into her lap, plugged “Annie Harrison missing” into the browser. The phone fell out from between her ear and her shoulder, bounced on the couch cushions, and landed on the floor. Keishya’s voice burbled out of it, but Lydia wasn’t listening. The woman in the basement stared out of her laptop screen. There were news articles about it. Gone without a trace, no farewells or resignation letter or suicide note. She’d just not shown up for work one day. Lydia flashed back through the nightmares, dozens of them, almost nightly since they’d moved in, and every time a different woman. Had they all lived here? How many others had disappeared from this house? She opened a new tab and plugged the house’s street address into the search bar, appended woman missing. Annie Harrison’s face appeared again, but stacked underneath it, a double handful of thumbnail images, smiling faces, all women. All missing women. From the door to the basement came an immense, wet grumbling, like a stomach growling. She flashed back to the wet patch on the basement floor, the tingle of her fingers smeared with fluid—a tingle like acid. Lydia staggered up to her feet, toward the front door. A pile of laundry she was sure hadn’t been there that morning nearly tripped her. She flung the door open and found Matt standing on the front porch, backpack slung over one shoulder and keys in his hand. He was just getting home from work. When he saw the look on her face, he smiled. He looked gentle and sweet. “Hi babe. Did you figure it out?” “I have to leave.” He reached out and touched her cheek. She flinched. “You can’t leave, babe. There’s so much to do in the house.” Something clattered in the kitchen and she spun, saw a stack of dirty pots and pans collapsing, rolling across the floor. In the bathroom, the tub made a belching sound. Dark water splashed up from the drain. “Go back inside, babe. Let’s go down to the basement.” She remembered Matt running his hands along the basement wall softly, almost fondly, like the house was a beloved pet. “Get out of my way.” “We’re hungry. Do you know what’s for dinner?” She squared herself to muscle past him, braced her palms on the doorframe to push off—and pulled them back, gasping, as something sliced her hands. Her palms were dotted with blood. She squinted at the wood, which glittered with razor-edged points. The doorframe was lined with tiny teeth. The house’s jaws slammed shut. The post PseudoPod 747: Keeping House appeared first on PseudoPod.
33 minutes | 3 months ago
PseudoPod 746: Rattlesnake Song
Author : Josh Rountree Narrator : Jarius Durnett Host : Scott Campbell Audio Producer : Marty Perrett Discuss on Forums “Rattlesnake Song” originally appeared in July 2019 in the the anthology Triangulation: Dark Skies. Rattlesnake Song by Josh Rountree The Last Picture Show came to the movie house on the square in the fall of nineteen seventy-one. We snuck in with warm cans of Pearl and sat on the back row so we could take quick hits off our cigarettes and snub them out before anyone noticed the smoke. I fell in love with Cybil Sheppard and figured she could wind me up just like she did all the guys in Anarene. I recognized that small town that had been something once but was now engaged in a battle with time. Every sandstorm, every gust of West Texas wind stripped away another layer of paint and vitality. That dying town was our inheritance. When the movie ended we spilled out onto Front Street with our half-full beer cans stashed in our jackets. Dean Champion’s dad had been a big hat over at the refinery in Big Spring before he hung himself, so Dean had sprung for the beer. We piled into his Chevelle and I made sure I was in the back seat, squashed tight against Stacy Bell’s thigh. Once upon a time that prospect would have excited me, but that time had passed. Dean hollered, “Pass it!” Jason or Holly or Gilbert had produced a pencil thin joint and when it made the rounds to Stacy and she held it out to me, straining to keep the smoke in her lungs a few seconds longer, I waved her off. Things were strange enough without it. The Chevelle’s tires squealed, caught the road, and we fled that nothing of a town square. The night opened up and let us in. Half drunk, I pressed one cheek against the cold window and saw the stars collapsing down from the heavens. They looked streaky and smeared, like someone had gone at them with a washrag. I closed my eyes, felt the hum of the road, the jerk as the car found high gear. A mile or so on, Dean braked and cornered us onto a caliche road. Rocks rattled off the undercarriage. My brain latched on to the possibility of skidding off the road at this speed and flipping over into the empty cotton fields, then the rough scales on Stacy’s fingers brushed mine and I found I really didn’t care. “Everyone out!” Dean again. I hadn’t realized the Chevelle had stopped moving. The car ticked to a stop and we piled out. If there was a moon, it was afraid to shine in that place. Our feet sank into the soil as we trudged into the fields. Nothing remained of the harvest but dead, crunchy plant husks. Rattlesnakes prowled the rows. It was far too cold for snakes, but that sort of thing hardly mattered anymore. Dean found a likely spot, dropped to his knees and the others joined him, their hands already digging into the soil, turning it over like they were searching for arrowheads. Connecting with the blood of the place, I guess. Their forked tongues tasted the night. Hands in my jeans pockets, I stood apart, unsteady and unsure why the rattlesnake song affected everyone else, gave them a purpose. I stared up into the boiling sky. All around us snakes coiled and hissed and rattled and my friends swayed in the blackness, doing their best to join the song. The wind tugged at my farm coat, iced the back of my neck. The desperate scent of Stacy’s Woolworth perfume joined the smell of stale beer. I imagined too that I could smell the snakes, musty and corrupt, and the whole cocktail brought vomit to the back of my throat. Dean grinned like a fanatic. His brother had grinned that way once, and now he was in the state hospital. His father too, and they’d found his body swinging from a beam in the garage. Some things were too hard to wrap your mind around. I couldn’t understand the attraction of staring into that terrifying sky, pondering the swirling stars and the coiling strands of colored light, not reds and greens but impossible, unimaginable colors. No human way to describe them without seeing them. But for those who could interpret the rattlesnake song it was a kind of worship. I tensed up when snakes slipped in and out of the circle, even though I knew they wouldn’t hurt us. They weren’t reptiles anymore; they were heralds of the gods. After a time, Gilbert and Holly stood in unison, glassy-eyed and still swaying. Dean fished in the pockets of his letter jacket for his keys and Stacey grinned at me before jumping up and heading to the car. They called back half-hearted goodbyes as they got into the Chevelle, leaving me to trudge across the cotton field to my house. I snuck through the front door, keeping quiet so I didn’t wake my parents. Force of habit from the days when they used to care whether or not I was coming in past curfew. On the way to my room, I opened their bedroom door a crack. They were still alive. I could tell by the hissing and heaving of their snores. We’d made it through another day without the world coming to and end. A week later I went to see the movie again. I figured I might not have too many more chances to watch movies so I’d better take advantage. The town was closing itself up. The old men who liked to gather out front of the drug store with their dominoes and long-winded memories had retreated to their houses. Old women abandoned church socials, clotheslines and ironing boards to embrace the winding down of their lives. The new reality was harder on the older people. They’d had a good long time to dig in their heels on the whole God is Good thing, only to be shown that the universe was terrible and unknowable. Oh well. The Dickensons who owned the theater had left the building unlocked and I knew how to run the projector from the summer I’d spent selling tickets and serving popcorn. As the film flickered to life on the screen, I dug my fingers into a bag of M&Ms and wondered if the Dickensons were still alive. Duane was up on screen, hitting Sonny in the head with a bottle when Stacey sat down beside me. “I was looking for you.” “Here I am,” I said. “How many times have you seen this movie now?” “A few.” “Lot of people having sex in this movie. Do you think everybody in this town is having that much fun?” I was pretty sure nobody was having fun anymore. “The movie’s not really about sex,” I said. “It’s about wanting to be somewhere else than where you are and being stuck. They’re all just having sex because they don’t have anything better to do. They’re bored.” “Doesn’t sound like the worst reason why anyone ever had sex,” she said. “Why were you looking for me?” I asked. “Wanted to see if you’d drive out to the fields with us again. It’s almost dark. You want to come look at the stars? Maybe you’ll hear the song?” The last thing I wanted was another reminder of the new world order and how poorly I fit in. Stacy cupped the side of my face, gently pulled my gaze from the screen and positioned it on her. I managed not to flinch. Her scaled palm was scratchy and cool against my skin, and the change from who she’d been to whatever she was becoming had picked up speed. “It’s okay you haven’t heard it yet,” she said. “Don’t worry, it’ll happen.” I wanted to scream out how I hoped to Hell it never did happen, and how I thought maybe I’d rather die than become like Stacy and the rest of them. How I’d have preferred even to join the adults in their slow insanity and rot. But she held me in place with those blue eyes that I had daydreamed about since middle school. Her stare was heavy and uncomfortable, like she was trying to fanaticize me by force of will. I realized I was afraid of how she might react if she knew how badly I wanted to look away. “You go ahead,” I said. “Tell everybody I’ll catch up with ‘em later. I want to finish the movie. See if it ends the same way this time.” Stacy gave me a cold kiss on the forehead. “We’ll say a prayer for you.” “Appreciate it.” I stared at the screen for another hour, but I wasn’t really watching the movie anymore. That evening, I put my ear against my parents’ bedroom door. The house was quiet as a church. I remembered the tears streaking down their faces on that night when the stars changed, the way Mom had fallen to her knees like a load of laundry spilling out of the hamper, and the way the light had passed from Dad’s eyes like our new gods had puckered up and blown it out. Maybe the adults were luckier than the rest of us. I thought about opening the door to make sure there was nothing I could do. Instead I loaded up everything I cared to take into the bed of Dad’s pickup truck and moved myself into the lobby of the movie theater. Within a month the rest of the adults in town were either dead or wandering the roads like children lost in a foreign country. A few of them might have left town, but I didn’t know for sure. I hadn’t seen anyone who wasn’t local in a long time and I’d decided that the outside world knew instinctively to avoid us. The flip side of that coin was that I didn’t think anyone of us was supposed to leave. I’d lived my whole life desperate to be anywhere else but now I was stuck. The second story of the movie house overlooked the town square: the turn of the century jailhouse that had been built to hold cattle thieves and rogue Indians, the dusty stretch of stores that hadn’t been very lively even before their owners had abandoned them, and the art deco drugstore building that had developed a slight eastward lean over the years, as if it had grown tired of the constant wind and was preparing to give itself up to the world’s fury. The town’s lone stoplight blinked on and off forever at one corner, and the handful of old pecan trees had shed their leaves and become skeletal hands, fingers spread wide in an effort to hold up the falling sky. A bonfire burned in the middle of Front Street, one of the only pieces of earth not swarming with rattlesnakes. My classmates strode across this sea of reptiles like Jesus on the water, assured in their new faith. The snakes themselves didn’t seem to care. Dean kept gunning his Chevelle up the street and back again, 8-track blasting Black Sabbath, a couple of other kids laughing and whooping in the backseat, and the snakes would part to let him pass every time. Someone had discovered a stale keg of beer in a stalled out delivery truck and the worshipers of our new gods had proceeded to get sloppy drunk. Gilbert and Holly both pounded on the movie theater doors and then called up to the window to invite me down, but I waved them off. Jason and Stacy were coiled together in a kiss at the edge of the bonfire, and I felt a hot stab of jealousy in spite of myself. That could have been me for sure. But the sensation faded fast, driven off by the clamor of ten thousand rattlesnakes, rising up from the blacktop like the sound of bacon frying in a skillet. That couldn’t have been me. Not really. Would I have wanted it to be? They hovered together in the crosshairs of my Dad’s old .208 rifle. I was pretty sure I didn’t intend to shoot anyone, but having it there reminded me that the universe hadn’t stolen all of my options. Shooting them all before the world ended might be a mercy. Problem was, I wasn’t sure if they were the ones needing mercy, or if it was me. I got in the habit of slinging that rifle over my shoulder whenever I left the theater. I had it with me one morning in the early hours, when all of my old friends had slunk back to their holes and the snakes had settled into an eerie silence. I picked out a snake that was coiled up on the step of the jailhouse and shot it in the head. The sound of the rifle rattled around the square for several seconds but none of the snakes stirred. The morning sun was still an hour away, and the colors in the sky still held sway. They were smeared from horizon to horizon like a kid’s crayon drawing, and they felt so much closer than they’d been. Staring at those colors long enough, you could make out patterns. You could begin to see things that you didn’t want to see. And yet once you stared long enough, it became hard to look away, like if you didn’t keep an eye on the stars they would crash down and suffocate you. I might have stared for two minutes or twenty, but I finally shook myself loose, lowered my head and saw every rattlesnake in the square with its head up, staring right at me. That was enough to put me in motion. By the time the sun was up, I had Dad’s truck loaded with my piss-poor collection of clothes and keepsakes, all the boxes of candy left in the theater, and a few dozen bottles of Dr. Pepper. The morning was cold but the heater cranked right up when I started the truck. The rumble of the engine and the way the seat rattled beneath me reminded me of riding with Dad out to the feed store on the interstate when I was a kid. Country music on the tinny speaker. Dad smelling like sweat and soil. On Sundays I’d squash myself between my parents in the cab on our way to church, Mom with some sort of casserole dish in her lap and Dad with the window cracked to let out the cigarette smoke. Dad only ever went to church to make Mom happy, and I’d quit going with them a few years ago because basically I was an asshole and was only just figuring that out. I closed my eyes and tried to smell that casserole and the fresh, flowery scent of Mom’s face powder. Someone knocked on the truck window and I nearly pissed my pants. I was pretty sure it was Dean. He wore his letter jacket, and a few patches of his blond hair remained. He used to wear it a little past his collar just to rile up his coaches, but now what remained of it clung in grass-like chunks to his scaled skull. The rest of him…well I couldn’t have told him from any of the others. When he spoke, it was still his voice. Mostly. “Where you going, man?” I rolled down the window and the morning cold chased away my fortress of warm memories. Dean’s tongue licked the air, but I’m pretty sure he was smiling. I resisted the urge to gun the gas pedal. “I think I have to leave town,” I said. “Oh man, don’t do that,” he said. “Dean, you know I don’t belong here anymore.” “I wish you wouldn’t leave.” Something in his expression changed and best as I could tell, he looked genuinely sad. “I know you can’t understand what the snakes are saying but it don’t matter. This is your place, man. Where else would you go?” I had no idea, but I knew I couldn’t stay there any longer. It might have been my place once, but those days were long gone. “How long before they get here?” I asked. “The new gods.” “Won’t be long,” he said. “Hard to say for sure but I figure a week or two. We can’t change that, you know. Don’t matter if you’re here or out to California they’re still coming. Better you stay here and we can vouch for you. You’re one of us. They’ll understand that.” “I don’t think they will,” I said. Dean hissed. “We been friends since we were kids. Played Pony League together, you at second and me at shortstop. We worked our tails off last summer stringing that barbwire around old Jameson’s cattle acreage. I vouched for you to your parents that night you got drunk at Holly’s party and passed out in her back yard. Ain’t we friends anymore?” “Yes, we’re friends,” I said. “But I still got to go.” All that was kind and soulful suddenly leaked away from Dean’s lidless eyes and I thought for a second he was going to yank open the truck door and stop me from leaving. He could have done it. He had me by at least twenty pounds. But instead he backed up and threw his hands up in mock surrender. “Go then if you got to,” he said. “But you got plenty of friends who at least deserve a goodbye.” Might be he was right. But I dreaded the prospect of reliving this same conversation with the others, and I was dead certain that Stacy would convince me to stay. I put the stuttering old truck into gear, steered it past the flower shop, and made the left turn onto the farm road that would eventually take me to the main highway. My tires rumbled along the caliche road as I accelerated, and for the first time I gave some thought to where I was going. I’d strained against the boundaries of my hometown ever since I’d been old enough to walk. There were a whole lot of interesting places on television and in the movies, and almost all of them looked better than where I was from. But my parents weren’t really vacation people. We rarely travelled farther than the next town over, and that was just because their grocery store served better cuts of meat than ours did. I’d only left Texas once. We’d driven out to the mountains in New Mexico when I was ten and I still held the cool pine-scented memories of that place with me through every miserable Texas summer. I still had a pinecone stashed somewhere at my parent’s house. If our world had two weeks, give or take, before the new gods arrived, I could think of worse places to spend them than those mountains. Or maybe I could head to the border. Drink some beers on a Mexican beach or check out some of those jungle ruins I read about in one of Dad’s adventure novels. It didn’t really matter. The prospect of being somewhere other than the handful of dusty streets I’d walked my whole life was right there in front of me, and there was no longer any reason to stay. When the pain came, it was sudden and bright, like getting stabbed with an icepick. My body recoiled and my knees caught the steering wheel, yanking it to the right. Before I could correct, the truck barreled off the road and into the bar ditch. One wheel caught a fence post and my head slammed against the roof of the cab as the truck rolled over twice and came to rest on its side, wedged in a nest of angry mesquite trees. Blood colored my vision and my shoulder screamed like it had gone out of joint. The rattlesnake was still latched on to my ankle, letting every drop of venom seep in. I made a halfhearted attempt to shake it loose, but I was caught tight. Frigid wind blasted in through the broken windshield and I could taste the soil in my teeth. My red vision faded to black and I could hear Dean’s reptilian voice taunting me like a ghost. This is your place, man. Where else would you go? I woke in an aluminum cattle trough in the middle of my parents’ abandoned cotton field. The trough’s brackish water had been emptied and replaced to the rim with rattlesnakes. The winter wind rushed freely across the plain, chewing away the last of the afternoon sun with icicle teeth, but I soaked in that cold reptile flesh like it was warm bathwater. The snakes kept completely still, even as I grasped the side of the trough and pushed up into a standing position. My left arm hung limp and a painful lump had settled over my ear, but I was alive. My friends circled the trough, watching in silence with their unblinking eyes. That morning I would have screamed to wake up with them staring at me like that, but a surreal calm had taken hold and I realized what had changed. The rattlesnakes were singing, and I could hear their song. Dean, Stacy, and the others swayed to the writhing, clattery rhythm and when I stepped out of the trough and trudged away through the soil, one ankle swollen twice its normal size, they made no move to stop me. A couple of them started to follow but I waved them off. “Where are you going?” asked Stacy. “Don’t worry. I’m not leaving. This is my place.” Back in my movie theater perch, I studied the town square through my riflescope. Another sundown meant another round of hell-raising, children without parents singing for the end of the world. Thing was, now I could hear the song too, and I knew none of them really understood the lyrics. My ankle burned like someone was holding a lighter to it, but the swelling had started to go down. That bite might have killed me under normal circumstances, but it was clear the snakes had a use for me. Fever burned up the back of my neck and I fell asleep there in the chair by the theater window, wondering if I was going to have to kill all my friends sometime soon. I dreamed of stars and snakes, coiling and cold and reaching. They lashed around the earth, plucking it neatly from orbit and giving it a rough squeeze. Snakes beyond count, but lording over them all a giant reptilian face with supernova eyes. I realized that all those snakes were actually tentacles growing from that face. Our new gods were really just one great hungry god, and when he arrived we wouldn’t die, we’d never have existed at all. The world screamed in the thing’s grip and the voices sounded like my friends, my Mom and Dad, like Jacy and Duane and all the other flickering black and white denizens of small town Texas. The god squeezed harder and I could feel the breath leaving my lungs in a rush. Then it whispered its name to me and I woke up screaming and choking on the floor of the movie theater. Through the window I could hear the voices of all those snakes with wonderful clarity, and I understood their intentions. They didn’t want the world to end any more than I did. The rattlesnake song was a plea for help. The rituals they’d taught my friends weren’t meant to summon a god; they were intended to keep us hidden, to cast a shadow over the world so that those horrible burning eyes couldn’t see us. Dean and Stacey and all the rest thought they were bringing on the end of the world, but their rituals were actually the only things keeping their dark god at arm’s length. They were acolytes, wearing the skins of their god. But I’d been chosen the rattlesnake’s prophet, and I wasn’t ready for that god to walk our earth just yet. I leaned my rifle in the corner, walked downstairs and joined my friends in a circle, our fingers twined together and hands raised up, and we danced, spinning and writhing and lifting up our voices in prayer. Time began to wind more slowly around us and the roof of creation shuddered overheard, but did not collapse. Angry colors spilled from one horizon to another like rivulets from an overturned paint can, but we continued to dance, and laugh, and celebrate what remained of our youth. The movie never gets old. Most nights we take our seats in the old movie house and settle in for the death of Sam the Lion for the countless time. We hate Jacy and we love her, and we root for Sonny to make better choices. Gray threads crept into my hair long years ago and I have more in common with Sam the Lion these days than I do with all those celluloid teenagers and their desperate need to break away from their small lives. I’m okay here. It’s my place. And besides, where else would I go? The others are like my children now, and I feel their pain acutely. They are acolytes in full, with little remaining of the people they used to be, and they ache for the coming of their god. If they knew the ways I work against them, they’d kill me for sure, but I quietly resist and swallow the guilt of all the misery I’m causing them. The movie seems to be the only thing that brings them calm, so we gather together in the dark and we watch. The movie plays every night, the refrigerators stay full of ice cold Dr. Pepper, and the popcorn is always hot and buttery. I don’t know if my rituals have frozen us in time or if the rattlesnakes have found a way to provide for us, but our tired town continues to lumber on, desperate to die but unable to rest just yet. Sometimes I wonder what’s happening in the rest of the world, but it’s a useless daydream. This place is our reality. These are our routines. Wanting more is just a shortcut to unhappiness. When the movie ends, my children drift back to their warm holes and hovels, and I pull a blanket over me and sleep there in the theater seat. I dream about burning universes, about small towns full of dead teenagers, and of course the angry colors in the sky. They’re always with me, asleep or awake, and they’re hungry for this place. Every morning when I wake, I look out the window to make sure the world is still there, and I give thanks. One night, I know, I’ll go to sleep and never wake up. I’m terrified of what’ll happen to all of us then. The post PseudoPod 746: Rattlesnake Song appeared first on PseudoPod.
44 minutes | 3 months ago
PseudoPod 745: Cleaver, Meat, and Block
Author : Maria Haskins Narrator : Larissa Thompson Host : Alasdair Stuart Audio Producer : Marty Perrett Discuss on Forums “Cleaver, Meat, and Block” was originally published in Black Static #73 in January 2020. Cleaver, Meat, and Block by Maria Haskins The first thing Hannah learned when she came to live with her grandparents after the Plague, was how to wield the meat cleaver. Grandma taught her, guiding her hands in the backroom of the old butcher shop on Main Street. Showing her how to wrap her fingers around the handle, how to put her thumb on the spine of the handle for extra power and precision, how to let her wrist pivot when she cuts. “You don’t need to be strong,” Grandma said. “The weight of the blade, the sharpness of the edge, is enough.” This past Christmas, Grandma and Grandpa gave Hannah a cleaver of her own. When she unwrapped it, Grandpa was already apologizing for not getting her new clothes or makeup or jewelry, even though such things are hard to come by these days. Hannah didn’t know how to tell him she’d never received a better gift in all her fourteen years. The cleaver is real and useful in a way few other objects in Hannah’s life have ever been, and she loves everything about it. She loves the dark, smooth wooden handle; the solid thunk of the wide, rectangular blade when it shears through meat and bone and hits the wooden chopping block; the way the steel edge glistens beneath the lights. Sometimes, when Hannah works in the butcher shop, she thinks about her parents and baby Daniel. They’ve been gone for three years, and she knows it’s better not to dwell on the past, yet she cannot help it. Sometimes she thinks about Meg, their old dog, too. About Meg’s silvered muzzle and silky, pointy ears. About the way Meg would sigh when she lay down on Hannah’s bed every night. About Meg’s pink and bloody guts torn out all over the driveway when the raveners fed on her. Sometimes, though rarely, Hannah thinks about a stifling attic space above a hall closet, wooden beams digging into her back and legs, a trapdoor barred with a garden rake, and the sounds that came from the house below. More often, though she tries not to, she thinks about Pete from school, and the way he looks at her. Every day after school, Pete follows Hannah home. He trails behind her along the paths and streets, regardless of which way she chooses to go. When she enters her grandparents’ house, two blocks away from the butcher shop, he lingers across the street, staring at the living room window as if he knows she’s watching him from behind the heavy yellow drapes. Every day, Hannah stands behind those drapes, waiting for Pete to skive off down the lane to his parents’ house. She waits with Rosko, her grandparents’ spaniel, beside her; her hands stroking the dog’s silky, caramel-coloured fur until Pete is out of sight. Rosko sleeps in Hannah’s bed. That’s the way it’s been since she first got here. Every night he curls up beside her, so close she feels each quiver of fragile life beneath his ribs. She lays there beneath the pink and white quilt Grandma picked out for this room back when it was still the guest room rather than Hannah’s room, and whenever Rosko whimpers in his sleep, she puts her arm around him. Hannah doesn’t want to love Rosko, and yet she cannot help it. Before the Plague and the raveners, Pete and Hannah lived in the same neighbourhood in the same city. It’s not like they were friends, but they went to the same school, though he was a grade ahead of her. Now, they both live in this run-down sawmill town full of old pickup trucks, faded strip malls, and resettled Plague-survivors, but they never speak to each other. Hannah rarely speaks to anyone at all, but she knows the silence between her and Pete is different. It’s more than an absence of words. It’s like the steel blade of the cleaver, bright and hard and sharp enough to cut. Pete’s family moved to town two months after Hannah arrived with the other Plague orphans. First time she saw him, he rode his red bike with a group of friends past the butcher shop, on their way to buy homemade candy from the repurposed Tim Hortons down the street. She shouldn’t have been surprised. Lots of survivors end up in this town because it’s one of the few in the region that survived the Plague with most of its infrastructure intact. On days when the electricity works, residents can almost pretend the world is functional again. Her grandparents have lived in this town all their lives, running the same butcher shop on Main Street since before Hannah’s mom was born. Even though the government-run supply store opened down the block last year, selling dry and canned goods, hygiene products, medicines, and second-hand clothes, people still come to the butcher shop to buy meat. They stand at the shiny glass counter, chatting with Grandpa about the weather and the rationing and the freight trains that have just started moving through a couple of times per week. Hannah stays in the backroom with the cleaver, trying not to listen, trying not to think of which customers were raveners during the Plague, and which were not. When Hannah wields the cleaver exactly right, when her grip is firm and her wrist pivots the way it is supposed to, then, all her memories are sheared away until nothing exists except the meat and the cleaver and the thunk of steel against the block. In those rare moments, Hannah can almost forget. She can almost forget the Plague. She can almost forget that her dog and her parents and Daniel were killed and eaten by Pete and his parents. Almost. But not quite. Hannah hides beneath the fir trees at recess while Pete and his friends play tag in the schoolyard. They call it tag but it’s really a game of chase, and no matter how it starts, it always ends with the kids who were raveners chasing those who weren’t. Crouched beneath the drooping branches, knees and hands touching wet dirt and roots, Hannah watches as Pete knocks Alexa to the ground under the swings. Alexa doesn’t try to fight once she’s down. She doesn’t scream even though her face is a mask of terror. Pete grabs her arms, pushes one knee into her midriff, opens his mouth and leans close to her face, jaws snapping. Hannah’s heart thuds hard and fast in her chest, watching as Pete leans in to rip Alexa’s throat open, as his fingers curl into claws. Then he laughs and shouts, “Gotcha!” before he lets Alexa go and runs after someone else. Alexa stays down. Hannah can’t see her face, but she knows Alexa’s crying. Pete and the others chase Oscar next. Oscar is tall and fast, and it takes a big group of them to bring him down, all of them falling on top of him, clawing at his back, screeching and hollering, tearing at his clothes. Hannah picks up a rock and holds it in her right hand, knuckles gone white. That day in the city when the raveners came loping up the driveway, that day when baby Daniel wouldn’t stop screaming, that day when Dad hoisted her up into the attic as the back door was pushed off its hinges, and the front door bent and shivered, that day, she held a pair of scissors in her hand. Huddled in the gloom beneath the rafters, she wasn’t sure what she’d do if the trapdoor opened from below. Would she fight? Or would she let them kill her? Holding the scissors, she listened as baby Daniel went silent, as the raveners tore and swallowed. Under the fir trees, Hannah holds on to the rock until the bell rings. It’s been two years since Hannah was found in the woods by a rescue and retrieval team, eighteen months since she came to stay with her grandparents. She’s learned a lot in eighteen months. How to sharpen knives, how to mop the butcher shop’s black and white tile floor, how to skim the fat and foam off Grandma’s stock pot, how to put scraps and lard into the meat grinder, pushing the pieces down the hopper, turning the crank until everything is pushed out through the grinding plate, pale pink curls of sausage meat dropping into the stainless steel bowl below. But nothing holds her interest like the cleaver. Working at the counter in the backroom, she grips the cleaver in her right hand while she holds the meat in place with her left. Grandma taught her how to wield the cleaver, but Grandpa taught her how to cut. How to turn a loin of pork into chops and roasts and stew meat. How to turn a slab of beef into steaks and brisket, blade roast, sirloin. How to separate a chicken into all its parts. Before the Plague, Hannah would have never thought she’d end up working in her grandparents’ butcher shop. Mom and Dad only brought her here for visits at Christmas, sometimes for a week in summer. Back then, Hannah dreamt of traveling the world and becoming a dog groomer or maybe a cartoonist. These days, the butcher shop seems as good a place as any to make a life. There is nowhere to go, nothing to become. The world beyond the highway, beyond the train tracks, beyond the ocean, is broken, rent asunder by the Plague and the raveners and the riots and disasters that followed in their wake. Even now, no one knows how many died, how many lived, how many turned ravener, how many turned to meat. Hannah knows it’s best to look ahead. There’s a vaccine now and a cure. People will never turn into raveners again. It was a virus that crept into people’s brains, made the infected crave living flesh and blood, made them gather in hordes, made them break down doors and windows to get to the living people hiding inside, made them rip through ribs and skin and skulls with their teeth and fingers. Look ahead. Make the best of things. That’s what people say. What they mean is, forget. It’s Saturday, and Hannah has been working in the butcher shop since breakfast. She helps out every weekend and most weekday evenings after homework. Her grandparents worry about how much she works and her lack of friends, but it doesn’t bother her. Hannah works, cleaver in hand. The meat on the block is cold and slippery. It’s been bled already, the carcass gutted and skinned, made ready for eating. She is not thinking about school. Not about Pete. Not about waking in the night with Rosko beside her, listening for furtive noises outside. She is not thinking about Mom and Dad and Daniel. Not thinking about raveners, clawing at the scraps of plywood covering the windows. Not thinking about the stifling dusk that engulfed her, once the trapdoor closed. The smell of blood and offal wafting up from below, hours after the raveners had left the house. The wet gleam of blood on asphalt once she got outside. Moonlight on the pavement where the last bits of Meg had been ground into the pitted surface. Ragged taste of salt and bile in her mouth as she ran from the city, folding herself into the darkness of the woods beyond the highway. Her vision blurs, making it hard to see, but the cleaver knows enough for both of them. It keeps cutting through bone and gristle and slippery meat while Hannah remembers. She remembers everything. That is the curse of those who did not turn into raveners, to remember. The raveners don’t remember being raveners. Once the cure burned the virus out of them, they had no memory of what they’d done, they could not recall their hunger, guts and brains ripped out, limbs cracked, flesh chewed and swallowed. The vaccine absolved them. There is no blame or guilt, no justice either. But Hannah can’t forget. Can’t look ahead, can’t make the best of things. That’s her secret, the one she dare not speak out loud to anyone. Pete and the others who were raveners mostly look like ordinary people now. Except, when she catches sight of them at the edges of her vision, their faces slip like melting rubber masks, revealing other faces, leering and snarling, teeth and gullets. She isn’t sure how to tell masks from faces. Maybe there is no difference. Maybe no one, no matter who they are or what they did, have real faces. Maybe there are only masks, and nothing but the hollow darkness beneath. Hannah looks down at the hand holding the meat, and for a moment it doesn’t seem as if it belongs to her. The pale skin, the veins beneath, the bones covered in flesh and sinew. It’s just another piece of meat for the cleaver to sort out on the block. “Hannah, come have some lunch.” Grandma’s voice stops the descending cleaver, the steely blade quivering above the wrist where the bones and joints hold it in place. Hannah puts the cleaver away and takes off her apron, hanging it on the hook beside the stove. She washes her hands and sits down with Grandma. “You work too much,” Grandma says as they dig into the flaky crust of the homemade chicken pie. Hannah watches the pale, creamy filling spilling out—chunks of chicken, green peas and golden carrots from the garden, flecks of fragrant thyme that Grandma dries in bunches in her kitchen. “I like working,” Hannah says. Grandma doesn’t say anything else and neither does Hannah, but the unspoken words—the words they both might say if they could find voices strong and gentle enough to hold them without shattering—are there in the warmth between them when Grandma touches her arm. You do what you need to, that’s what Grandma said that first night when Hannah couldn’t fall asleep in the guest room. I’m not going to tell you how to deal with it, because I don’t know either. The house where Hannah’s grandparents live is small and square, with a black tar-papered roof and white stucco walls. In the front garden, fading daisies and catmint peek out between sage and thyme, peas and beans. Like the backyard garden, it’s ready for the last harvest. In summer, zucchini and onion, carrots and potatoes, tomatoes and beets, crowd together where the flower beds and the lawn used to be before the Plague, but it’s autumn now, and everything will soon turn brown. Inside, the house is all flowery wallpaper, chintz, and polished wood. It smells of firewood and lavender sachets. The back of the house looks out over the greenbelt and the gravel road beside the creek, and from her window on the second floor Hannah sees the river, the highway, and the train tracks. Sometimes, when she stands in the window, breath catching on the glass, Hannah sees Pete down by the river, walking or riding his bike on the trails through the old scrapyards and abandoned buildings. Sometimes, he’s with his friends, usually he’s alone. She’d recognize him anywhere. That lopsided slope of his shoulders. The swing of his arms. The way he cocks his head when he looks around. Along the river, there’s a warren of run-down industrial properties, an old sawmill and a cement factory, a heap of rusted car remains and a scrapyard. From her vantage point, Hannah sees the tangled rolls of barbed wire and debris heaped up in that scrapyard. It was part of the barricade around the town during the Plague, when guards patrolled the perimeter 24/7, armed and ready. The Plague never reached this town. Not one single ravener ever roamed its streets, though other communities along the highway were wiped out. No one knows why some places were spared. Maybe it was God’s will, like the priest tells them in church. Maybe it’s because there’s no airport or harbour nearby, like their teacher says. Maybe it was just dumb luck, like Grandma thinks. No one had time to build barricades around the city where Hannah lived. By the time people realized there was a Plague, it was already on the inside, inside the suburbs and the downtown core, inside the houses and trains and subway stations, inside hospitals and schools and preschools. One Tuesday, everything was fine with school and lasagna and Mom going to a yoga class at the rec-center. Next Tuesday Dad was boarding up the windows, and most of the neighbourhood had turned ravener. The Tuesday after that, Hannah was all alone, in the woods. Grandpa and Grandma only ever saw the Plague on TV, until the TV broadcasts stopped, the internet went down, and that big winter storm hit in the midst of everything, knocking out the electricity. After that, “everything went bonkers”, like Grandpa says, for about a year. They know what happened, everyone does, but knowing is not remembering. They don’t lie awake at night, listening to the wind but hearing the raveners breathing outside the door, scratching at the walls and windows. They don’t hear Daniel shrieking even though Mom is trying, trying, trying to make him shut the hell up, they don’t hear the heavy thud when Dad falls to the floor. They don’t know what it sounds like when raveners eat someone. Hannah remembers, but cannot speak of it. Her memories are like a thousand thousand thousand screaming, bleeding mouths, and if she were to reveal them in the daylight, if she were to lay them bare in this house, she fears the horror of it might devour not just her, but Grandma and Grandpa and the street and the river and the entire world. Hannah is chopping pork in the backroom, setting aside the scraps for a batch of Grandma’s sage and onion sausage, when she hears the entry bell jingling. “How’s business?” someone asks Grandpa in the shop. Hannah knows that voice. It’s Pete’s mom. She doesn’t need to look to know what the woman looks like, neat hair, neat clothes, red lipstick and a smile. Her face so clean and polished you’d never know she ever tore raw meat off the bones. “Can’t complain,” Grandpa answers. “People always need to eat.” Pete’s mom laughs. In the backroom, the cleaver stops. Grandma is standing next to Hannah at the counter, turning the crank on the meat grinder, and for a moment the grinder too goes silent. Hannah glances at Grandma, and before they both look away, Hannah catches a gleam of the cleaver’s steel in Grandma’s eyes. It’s so brief that afterward she is not sure whether it was real, or whether she imagined it. Then, the bell jingles again and Pete’s mom leaves, carrying the meat she bought in a brown paper bag. In the backroom, Hannah closes her eyes, but the cleaver keeps working, moving with more speed and accuracy than she could ever manage on her own. One October day, after school, Pete follows Hannah all the way to her door. He comes right up to the house behind her. The key slips between her fingers when she tries to get inside, away from Pete, and then Rosko is out on the porch before she can stop him. He’s too happy, too wiggly, to contain. Same as Meg was, once. “I like your new dog.” Hannah turns and looks at Pete, really looks. His face is pale and smooth around the wet cave of his mouth, and she catches the glint of his teeth and tongue. He stares back at her, blue eyes shiny and blank. “I remember you,” he says, and puts his hand on Rosko’s head. It’s just a brief touch, fingers curling into Rosko’s caramel coloured fur. “We went to the same school, remember?” Rosko backs away from Pete, a growl lurking in his throat. Hannah feels the weight of her empty hands. If she had a rock, or a pair of scissors, she’d know what to do with her hands. But they are empty. Looking at Pete, Hannah sees her fist go through his face, breaking it, smashing it to pieces, until she reveals the true face beneath. But instead she grips Rosko’s collar and drags him inside, pulling the door shut behind her, locking it with the deadbolt and chain. The dog wiggles around her and she holds onto him, sitting there in the hallway, back braced against the door, waiting for the raveners to come. She waits for a long time. Once, and only once, Grandpa asked Hannah how she survived. She told him the truth. She hid. She hid when she could and ran when she had to. That’s all. She wasn’t smart or brave or strong, just lucky. Grandpa didn’t ask for details, but Hannah remembers the details. She remembers Dad telling Mom the army would surely come and get them out. She remembers how the raveners mostly roamed the cities and towns at first, so the woods and fields were safer. But eventually, the hordes headed out to hunt elsewhere. She remembers the places where it’s harder for the raveners to find you. Narrow concrete pipes half-filled with fetid water and dead things. Root cellars barred from inside. Garages with metal doors. Shipping containers at the dock. She remembers what to eat to keep yourself alive even when you think you want to die. Hannah remembers being found, too. She remembers the army truck and the smell of biodiesel and disinfectant and hot chocolate, the people in hazmat suits swabbing her arm, drawing blood, testing her for infection, telling her she was “clean” before they administered the vaccine. She remembers the months of boredom and half-decent meals at the quarantine camp, watching raveners be brought in each day on trucks, howling and scratching at each other, before they were penned, swabbed, cured, and put into a separate section of the camp. Hannah dreams of the past every night. Sometimes, she’s in the camp. Sometimes, she’s in the woods. Sometimes, she’s huddled beneath the roof, listening to Dad moaning below. Every time she wakes up in her grandparents’ house and sees the pink and white quilt, the world seems more unreal than what she left behind. Maybe she only dreamed that she was saved. Maybe she is still curled up in a concrete pipe by the river, gnawing on raw fish and worse. Yet every day she gets out of bed, puts on her clothes, and acts as if she believes this is real. Every day she wraps the shreds of what is left of the old Hannah around the emptiness that is Hannah now, and no one seems to notice that there’s nothing left of her beneath the rags. The day when Pete finds her hiding beneath the trees at recess, Hannah doesn’t have a rock. Her second mistake is to run. She should have just stood still and let him knock her down, get it over with, but when he comes for her, she bolts. Pete knocks her off her feet, pins her down, his breath warm and wet on her face and neck. Hannah doesn’t scream. Screaming will only bring more of them, she’s seen it happen enough times. She knows she is going to die, knows she is already dead, that she died in that gloomy attic, that whatever came out of there, whatever hid in the woods for all those months, was not really Hannah, but someone, something, else. But Pete does not rip her throat out. Instead he leans close and whispers in her ear, words as slippery as meat. “I remember,” he whispers. “I remember what they tasted like.” Then he’s up and running again, chasing someone else. Hannah doesn’t move. She looks up at the blue sky that is so thin and worn it might be ripped asunder by a gust of wind, or a scream, and reveal the black cold void beyond. After work in the butcher shop that evening, Hannah cleans the meat cleaver and the knives and the chopping block. She scrubs the counters and mops the floor. It’s the first time she brings the meat cleaver home with her. She wraps it in a towel and tucks it into her backpack. That night, with the steel beneath her pillow, it’s easier to sleep. I remember. She knows it’s the truth, because it’s sharp and it hurts and it cuts through every lie she has been told—about the Plague, about the cure, about the raveners. It reveals the world as it is, as it always was: a place where everyone is meat. Rosko sometimes whines at night, wanting Hannah to let him out in the backyard, but she keeps him inside as much as she can after dark. Pets disappear all the time in this town. Cats. Dogs. Caged rabbits and chickens. “It’s coyotes,” people say, “they’re everywhere these days.” But Hannah hasn’t seen any coyotes from her window or on the way home from school. Not a single one moving in the greenbelt, or by the river. She has just seen Pete, and his friends, riding or walking through the tall grass and scrub, sometimes venturing into the woods beyond. One night in late October when Rosko wakes her, he’s growling rather than whining. Hannah pulls the cleaver from beneath the pillow and when they get downstairs, Rosko stands stiff and trembling, staring at the back door, hackles raised. There are voices outside, low and muffled. Close. Outside the kitchen window, the night is moonlit and frosty. Hannah shivers in her blue flannel pyjamas. She sees a thousand shadows in the yard, crouched and looming, hunched and menacing, fanged and clawed. She stands very still, listening, with the cleaver in her hand. The cleaver is still warm from being in her bed, and when she raises it slightly, it feels light and quick in her hand, almost happy. Hannah understands. It’s eager. Eager to cut, to chop, to slice. The weight and heft of it settles her heart and breathing, allows anger to come through, burning away the fear. She opens the door a crack, keeping Rosko behind her. “Go away,” she shouts, and her voice sounds deeper and stronger when she holds the cleaver. “Go away, you fuckers!” It’s the cleaver that makes her swear. She never has before. But now she wants to. There is rustling, there is wind, the creak of the fence. Maybe something scrambles over it. Maybe there are footsteps, disappearing down the narrow path along the greenbelt. Coyotes, that’s what people will say, but the cleaver knows the truth and so does Hannah. Afterward, Hannah lies awake, holding Rosko. He’s smaller than Meg was when she slipped out while Dad tried to reinforce their front door. He weighs only a little more than Daniel did the last time she held him. Mom wouldn’t let Hannah take Daniel with her in the attic when she hid. “There’s no time, and he might cry,” Mom shouted at Dad as the raveners pounded on the doors. It was true, maybe he would have cried, but he was a good baby, and Hannah tried so hard to make him understand how important it was to be quiet. Maybe she could have saved him. Hannah lies awake with the cleaver underneath her pillow until jaundiced morning light filters through the pink and yellow curtains. I remember. Of course Pete remembers. They all do, and everyone knows it, even if they pretend otherwise. It’s easier to pretend. Because so many of the survivors were raveners. Because no one knows what else to do. Because it’s over now, and everyone should get on with their lives. Hannah wraps the cleaver in a towel and puts it in her backpack. She’s tired. Tired of being scared. Tired of wrapping the shreds of old Hannah around the emptiness. Tired of not screaming. She knows what she must do, and so does the cleaver. The rest of the week, Hannah walks a different way home from school every day. It takes longer, because she avoids the roads and streets, staying closer to the river and the woods, but for two days Pete does not find her. On the third day, he’s back, following her through a copse of trees by the train tracks, past the old sawmill, through the mess of wrecked cars near the greenbelt. The clouds hang low, fat with rain, and Hannah runs the last bit home, cleaver bouncing in her pack, heart thumping in her chest until she is safe inside with Rosko. She walks new routes every day after that, knowing Pete will follow. It’s October, then November, and the sun goes down earlier every evening. There is only a slip of light left after school, and dusk lurks all around while Pete follows her. Hannah stretches out the walks home until there is barely enough light to see by. Some days, she doesn’t make it to work in the butcher shop at all. Other days, she hides from Pete in the wreckage of old buildings or the hulks of rusted cars, watching as he searches for her, waiting to see what he will do. Those days, she gets home so late that Grandma and Grandpa have already gone to bed. She knows they’re worried, but they don’t ask where she’s been. Hannah wonders if they’re scared that she would lie, or if they’re scared she’d tell the truth. It’s late November. The air smells like frost and snow and Hannah’s breath hangs in the air in ragged tufts on the way home from school. She chooses the longest route, and Pete follows about a hundred meters behind. Whenever Hannah turns and looks at him, she shivers—a bit from the cold, not so much from fear. Near the river, she starts to run. Not fast enough to really get away. Just fast enough to make Pete follow, but once they’ve left the houses and the streets behind, the chase is real. It’s like the day she fled the city with a pack of raveners at her back. That time, the raveners found an old woman hiding in a car and dragged her out, giving Hannah enough time to escape. Pete chases and Hannah runs, heading for the scrapyard. It’s a jumble of old machinery, rusting metal, sagging storage sheds, busted cars, and no one is watching except the broken eyes of the buildings. Even though Hannah has it all planned out—where to hide, where to wait for him if he falls behind—Pete catches her unaware, jumping out from a pile of old tires and knocking her to the ground. In the gathering dusk, Hannah fights silently, but Pete is strong, and there’s no other meat here to divert his attention. His hands grip tight, pinning her down, her right arm trapped underneath her at a painful angle. Panting, Pete leans close. “Not so tough now, are you.” His breath smells sour and sickly and Hannah tries to knee him in the groin, but he holds her down. “Don’t you think I see the way you look at me? Like you’re better than me. Like you didn’t hide in the mud and eat bugs and worms and roadkill to survive. Like that makes you better than me.” Hannah tries to buck him off, but he’s too heavy. She wriggles her right arm halfway free and feels around for the backpack stuck underneath her legs, its zipper half open. “You should be scared of me.” Pete’s voice is harsher now. “All of you should be. You shouldn’t have made it out of that house. I looked for you after we ate your dog and your brother. I looked and looked, and I knew I smelled you but then…” His voice wavers, his face crumples. “I remember it. Every day. Every night. All the time. What do you think that’s like? Mom says I can’t talk about it, not even to her, but…I…” Hannah stares at his pale, flushed face. There are tears in his eyes, snot dribbling from his nose. As if he has anything to mourn. As if he has lost anything. Then Pete sees her looking and he growls, slipping a grin back on his face before grabbing her by the throat. His mouth flaps open, wet and pink and full of teeth, and the memories ignite in Hannah’s head, burning through her, a conflagration consuming doubt and fear, consuming the girl she was before, consuming everything but meat and steel. The backpack is pinned below her thighs. She reaches into it for the cleaver, and the cleaver does not hesitate. It’s sharp and efficient. It’s useful and reliable even when Hannah is not, and Pete doesn’t see it, doesn’t know the blade is coming, doesn’t realize it’s there, until the steel bites into his face. You don’t need to be strong. The weight of the blade, the sharpness of the edge, is enough. Closing her eyes, Hannah folds herself into emptiness that has grown inside her since she hid in that attic. The cleaver doesn’t need her help. It knows what to do. It knows what to do with every piece of slippery wet meat held down on the block, and here in the scrapyard, the cleaver does its work while the world inside and around Hannah screams, a thousand thousand thousand mouths yawning wide, shrieking in terror and despair, wrath and ruin, grief and devastation. So many mouths: her own, Mom’s, Dad’s, Daniel’s, Meg’s, all of them, the whole world, crying out in agony and triumph while the cleaver goes about its business. Afterward, it’s quiet, and for a single, razor-thin sliver of time—a sliver so thin and fine Hannah can see both past and future through it—no one is screaming. Not in Hannah’s head, not elsewhere either. The world’s gone mute, watching Pete in the gravel. Hannah watches as the last of the bruised daylight fades. She watches closely, hoping to see the moment when he turns into meat, but it doesn’t happen. It already happened. He was always meat. Just like Mom and Meg. Just like Dad and Daniel. Just like she is. There’s a culvert of corrugated steel nearby where the creek spills into the river, its tarnished vault high enough to stand inside and she drags the body there. If Hannah were alone, she might have left it in the open, to be found. But the cleaver knows best. It knows how to sort out the meat beneath the blade, and it knows what they can do, together. Grandma finds her in the backroom of the butcher shop early next morning. Worry and relief chase across her face as she looks at Hannah’s bloody shirt and torn jeans, her dirty shoes, her heavy, wet backpack. Hannah holds Grandma’s gaze and Grandma does not look away. “Pete told me he remembered,” Hannah whispers while the cleaver keeps working. “Maybe they all do.” Even then, Grandma does not look away. She sees. She sees the meat on the block, and the meat on the floor, she sees it for what it is, sees the world as it is, and Hannah, in turn, sees the exact moment when Grandma understands, when she understands everything—cleaver, meat, and block. Maybe her old hands tremble. Maybe not. “Right,” Grandma says, fumbling with her apron. “Pies and sausages it is. But they’re not for everyone,” she adds sharply, and there’s a glint of steel behind her glasses when she gets the meat grinder ready. “Only for those that might remember and appreciate the taste.” Hannah nods and wraps her hand around the handle as the cleaver goes back to work. The post PseudoPod 745: Cleaver, Meat, and Block appeared first on PseudoPod.
21 minutes | 3 months ago
PseudoPod 744: This Wet Red
Author : Marisca Pichette Narrator : Autumn Ivy Host : Alasdair Stuart Audio Producer : Marty Perrett Discuss on Forums PseudoPod 744: This Wet Red is a PseudoPod original. This Wet Red by Marisca Pichette I lie listening to a mouse in the wall. Its tiny feet scrabbling across worn boards; its tiny heart beating and beating and beating. Its not so tiny pursuer winds through the dark, a soft caress of scales over pine. I track the path of the monster unseen from one end of the room to another, steady in pursuit. It knows the mouse cannot escape. It knows there are only so many empty spaces in the house. Scratch scratch scratch. Squeak. The mouse erupts from the corner and runs down to the floor. I sit up in bed, tracking its progress between my bare feet. From above, I hear the relentless monster drinking the scent of its prey, following it into the open. Open-ish. It is almost totally dark in the room. In the house. There is no power anymore. After the candles ran out, I located a box of crayons and burned them one by one, like I read once in a Tumblr post. Internet hack pulling through and outlasting its source. I follow the chase with my ears more than my eyes. The three-foot predator slips down the wall, hits the floor with a muffled thump that reminds me of tenderizing chicken, back when I had chicken to tenderize. The mouse is hiding somewhere; I lost track of it when it fled beneath the bed. Without the hero, I follow the antagonist instead. The milk snake hugs the floor, tongue lashing the dark. I sit still as it pulls itself under the bed. Scuffle. Scratch scratch scratch. Sque— The next sounds make me think of the house, and the house I stayed in before. Wet and full of bones. I think about the house before that, and the trailer before that house, and the apartment, and the motel. Thick swallowing and the smell of silence. After a few minutes, I get up and reach under the bed. The snake is sluggish after its meal, and I snatch it easily. It is more filling than a mouse on its own. When I run out of snakes and mice, I move into another house. Sometimes there are others inside, hiding like me. But this one was empty when I got here. I spend the days sleeping for as long as I can, hoarding my strength and gagging my hunger. Day is good. Day is safe. The monster sleeps during the day. At night, though, I have to be alert. I don’t move around; I don’t have the energy to burn. I lie on the bed, and wait. Tonight, I eat the last snake. Tomorrow, I walk outside. The sun is bland, strangled by clouds and indecisive precipitation. It could be rain, it could be sleet. It might be something else entirely. I take a fresh coat from this house and set out. The sleeves are too short but too wide also, and I hunch, balling my fists in the pockets. I find two used tissues and a melted cough drop. I eat the cough drop. I shove the tissues into my jeans pockets, in case I need them later. This is the eighth coat I’ve taken. They keep disappearing. Outside of the house I have choices. Choices-ish. I can choose which direction to go. I know not to go south; south is where the monster is. South is wet and red and brown. I think about going east. Across the overgrown field, I see disused tobacco barns, thin trees, and far off—hills. I could shelter in a barn, but there wouldn’t be any food besides what I can catch. In a house there’s a chance of finding something packaged. I turn north and start walking. The grass comes up to my knees, clinging to my legs and dropping seeds over my shins. My boots wick away some of the moisture, but water is tenacious. Soon my socks are wet and cold. I curl in on myself, squinting my eyes against the wet air. Mist eddies over the field, weaving around a wooden fence and dropping away on the other side. I extend my stride, chewing my lip and shaking stray hairs from the corners of my eyes. When I get close enough to look over the fence, I smile. The road. A road. I don’t know if this is one I’ve found before. It’s cracked like the other, with shoots crawling up between the veins of asphalt and turning brown where the ends have been snagged by frost. I hop the fence and begin walking, heading west now. Out of habit, I check the watch on my right hand. It’s fractured, the time stuck at 6:34. I look up at the emotionless clouds. Half-formed ice crystals sting my eyes. I should be fine. I have time. Maybe five hours, if I’m lucky. Morning is hard to tell. I think it might be 10:00. I’ll be fine. I don’t walk fast. I can’t afford the waste. I lope along the road, letting my weight determine each step, gritting my teeth as the wetness on my legs draws the heat from my skin. I try to make the sleeves of my new coat meet the tops of the pockets, but it’s useless and my skinny wrists gleam in the gap. Tiny ice crystals plant seeds of cold along my arms. Eventually the road leads to a neighborhood. It is quiet; probably evacuated due to the warnings. I feel like an intruder, but I tell myself I’m a refugee. No one is coming back to these houses. I skip the first one and go to the second. I always skip the first house. On the steps are two flowerpots. I move each, checking underneath before feeling through the dead stalks and digging in the dirt. Empty-handed, I step up onto the porch and kick away the doormat. “Really?” A key lies in the dust. I roll my eyes and pick it up. “Can you be any more obvious?” I unlock the door and let myself into the dim interior of the house. I’m surprised to find it warm. Was the heat not turned off in this area? I close the door as quietly as I can, the key clutched in my other hand. As warmth begins to permeate my limbs, I inhale, smelling for death. Of course, monsters don’t need heat. That’s for the living. Something further inside rattles. I close my eyes and follow the movement with my ears. Then I clear my throat. “Hi.” When I open my eyes, a woman is standing in front of me. Her hair is grey and matted, her clothes hanging loose as my new coat. She’s holding a pair of scissors in one hand. She stares at me. “Who are you? Where did you come from?” I pocket the key and jerk my head back towards the road. “Came from the farmlands, down east.” She doesn’t lower the scissors. “The farms? I thought they were evacuated. I thought the monster came.” “It did. They were. I thought this neighborhood was evacuated, too.” Her hands are shaking. Not a good sign. She probably doesn’t have food. “I stayed.” The others said that, too. That’s why they were still in their homes, alone and starving when the monster came. They had their reasons, of course—what good it did them. Land inherited through generations, nostalgia, investment, family…all faded and failed at the end. But reasons intrigued me. I never stayed, not when the monster came, and those people died, and I was left alone. What drove people to sit and wait for death? “Why?” I ask. She shrugs. It’s so out of place on her, in here, now. “This is my home. We’ve stayed through storms and wars. What makes this different?” Because this is personal. There aren’t soldiers or armies. There’s just us, and it. And it’s coming. I decide not to voice the truth, the memory of all those others who sat, while I kept moving. Instead I extend my hand, making her twitch and raise the scissors higher. “My name’s Leiki. Can I stay with you for the night?” I have time to pick another house, if she says no. But I don’t know that I’ll find another key, and breaking a door or window will waste valuable energy, not to mention compromise the security of my shelter. She frowns, and I can almost taste her gaze traversing my face, my eyes. My stomach rumbles. “Pretty name, Leiki. What’s that….Japanese?” “Sort of.” She doesn’t try to push me. “Helen,” she says, and lowers the scissors. “You can stay, if you must. But I don’t have much.” I was wrong. She does have food. Food-ish. For her age, Helen is a survivor. We go into the kitchen, where three skinned squirrels are lying on the counter. I tense at the smell of blood and fresh meat. She sees my expression and misinterprets, gesturing to a birdfeeder outside the window. “Electric. I fry ‘em when they come for the seed.” I make up my mind to stay with Helen for more than one night. As the days pass, I begin to feel more like myself. Eating squirrels and songbirds isn’t much, but it works. Helen doesn’t talk a lot, which is another blessing. You can say a lot without words. I’d fuck her, if I had the strength. I still listen for mice, and catch them when I can. That earns my keep. I’m like a stray cat, steadily culling the vermin to ensure I can stay longer. But they run out eventually. One night a week into my stay, I lie awake and hear nothing. Nothing-ish. Something is moving around outside. I stay lying down as long as possible, unwilling to expend the strength to investigate. Food has gotten scarce, and hunger is starting to creep through me, unstoppable. To distract myself, I lie and listen to the thing outside as it creeps around the yard. Something like footsteps, and a deep, strong heartbeat. Four legs. I close my eyes, biting on my lip until I taste blood. Through my window on the second floor I can’t see it. But I hear as it approaches the house. It begins scratching, trying to get in. I will it to find this place empty, to try the first house instead. Wouldn’t it go to the first house? White light flashes from outside, and the monster bellows. I lie frozen, then remember Helen’s birdfeeder. It runs on a generator in the basement; a generator that will keep working as long as there is gas to fuel it. The monster must’ve touched the wires. I hold my breath, listening for more. Maybe it went away. Maybe it died. “Leiki!” Helen’s voice. I get up, put my coat on, and come down the stairs. She is waiting at the bottom. “I think it’s knocked out,” she says. I go to the kitchen window. It’s too dark to see outside. All I find is a hazy reflection of my face, blood dripping down my chin. My stomach twists. “I’m going to look,” I say. Helen grabs my arm. “Leiki, don’t.” Her voice is thinned by fear. I look at her, or the shadow that I know is her. I tried to fight it. I really did. I’ll remember her more than the others. I pull away from her grip, using some of my precious strength. “I have to see.” I walk over to the back door and turn the deadbolt. “Leiki!” I can hear her heart, fast and fragile. Before she can stop me, I open the door. Something black shifts in the gloom. The monster is here. When I turn around, Helen screams. Morning. I am lying in the yard. My coat is gone. All around me the grass is flattened and crusted over with frost. Birdseed dapples the grass like sun. I sit up, brushing seeds and frost and blood from my face. The back door is open. I don’t want to see; I know what I’ll find. But I get up anyway. I walk anyway. I look anyway. Inside Helen’s house it is wet and red. Helen is spread everywhere, over the counters, the floor, the windows. She makes it all the way to the front door. I use this door to leave, wiping my feet on the mat. I don’t bother to close the door. There’s no heat left to let out. I keep the key. It’s something. Before I go to the next house, I walk around the back and stare at the flattened grass. My limbs feel stronger, my body warmer than it’s been in weeks. I bend down and pick up a tuft of black hair. There’s another. I follow the trail until I find the bear stretched out in the grass, its neck twisted and broken. Its fur is torn and matted with blood. I lick my lips, remembering the taste. As I back away, I shiver. It has my coat in its mouth. The post PseudoPod 744: This Wet Red appeared first on PseudoPod.
26 minutes | 3 months ago
PseudoPod 743: Flash on the Borderlands LIV: Stage Three: The Bargain
Authors : Gordon B. White, Donyae Coles and William Faulkner Narrators : Dave Robison, Graeme Dunlop and Tonia Ransom Host : Alasdair Stuart Audio Producer : Marty Perrett Discuss on Forums “The Kid Learns” was first published in the New Orleans Times Picayune on May 31, 1925 “The Sputtering Wick of the Stars” was originally published in Halloween Forevermore in 2015 “If It Bit You” is a PseudoPod original Content warning: Spoiler Inside SelectShow Racial slurs, systemic racism The Kid Learns by William Faulkner [Text to follow] The Sputtering Wick of the Stars by Gordon B. White It is the people in the small towns dotting the countryside who first notice the darkness in the evening skies. One by one, the stars are vanishing. Every night, more are snuffed out: hundreds, thousands, hundreds of thousands of light years away. The encroaching blackness rolls across the horizon like a glacial wave. As the patch of empty sky grows, eating away the constellations, the world cannot cope. First comes violence, then self-harm; local panic, then global paralysis. One by one the power grids go out, the communication lines fall silent. The darkness spreads across the earth, reflected in the pooling abyss above. Here in Asheford, in the now-black village center, the remaining congregants gather in the chapel each night, waiting. From sunset to sunrise, the Reverend Mott hovers around the lectern, illuminated by a single large white candle. He rails against the sinners that have brought this plague of shadow, harrowing the sunken-eyed living and the long-since dead. “Hell is real.” The reverend wrings his hands, casting claws of shadow across his flock as he paces between the candle and the silent mass. “This darkness is the void, the absence of the light of the Lord.” He stops and crooks his finger at the room. “The Beast is coming for us. A cold, black wind from out of space. The very breath of the Devil is blowing out the stars like candles.” The flame flickers, and a woman in the pews begins to weep. But there is a different murmuring in the back of the nave. A man stands, pushing someone away, then strides up the aisle towards Reverend Mott. “I’m sorry, but I can’t let you go on.” The man reaches the steps and climbs to Mott’s level. “This is all superstition. It’s lies.” Reverend Mott crosses his arms and roots himself between the man and the fire. “What do you know? Hubris like yours has brought this ill wind.” “First of all,” the man adjusts his glasses, “there’s no wind in space, ill or otherwise. There’s no air at all. The stars are not being blown out.” “What, then, is causing the darkness? What is this, if not evil’s breath and the world’s end?” “Let me tell you.” The man turns to the crowd. “I am a scientist. I know the truth.” He rolls up his sleeves, gesticulating as he speaks. “You see, I’ve studied the universe. I’ve seen it through telescopes in all its wonder and strangeness. I promise you, there is no magic wind; the Devil is not blowing out stars through the reaches of space.” The man swings his hands in punctuation, forcing Mott to take a half step backwards to keep his balance. The crowd mutters. “No, instead what it’s doing”—the man licks his thumb and index finger—“is more like this.” He reaches past the Reverend Mott and pinches the candle’s wick, snuffing the flame instantly and unleashing darkness throughout the chapel. “But you were right. The Beast is coming.” If It Bit You by Donyae Coles “There’s something wrong with the baby,” Selah said to the doctor, a white woman with cinnamon brown hair that floated untamed around her head in contrast to the white of her doctor’s coat, the sterile everything in it’s place-ness of the office. Selah didn’t know the woman’s name. She was the the seventh or eighth that she had seen in the thirty weeks of her pregnancy. Every visit to the office, the Woman’s Health Center, she saw a different doctor. And all the techs and nurses. She couldn’t keep them straight. But she knew she told them, had been telling them since the first fluttering kicks that there was something wrong when she couldn’t ignore it anymore. When she finally forced herself to figure out how to juggle an appointment, work, and the kids. Something didn’t feel right. Sometimes she thought if she had come earlier, things would have been different but she knew that was wrong. Knew it was always going to be what it was from the moment he smiled at her. The woman with the wild hair smiled now, wide and soft. She placed her hand over Selah’s much darker one. “It’s your first baby. It’s alright to be nervous. Most new mom’s are. Everything looks good though. All your labs, the ultrasound. You and your baby are perfectly healthy.” “I’m not a new mom. This is my third baby. I’m telling you something is wrong,” she fought her anger down, swallowed it up and pushed it to her center. She couldn’t let it loose, let it roll over this white woman. She wouldn’t listen if she did. “Oh!” the doctor exclaimed, her fingers stumbling for the tablet that held Selah’s chart. The chart she had barely looked at. “You look so young! I shouldn’t have assumed,” she let the words trail off as she looked through the system, skimmed the notes. Her smiled dropped, a crease formed in her brow. “You’ve complained a lot but,” she looked up at Selah then, “There’s nothing at all wrong with you or the baby. We’ve told you before.” The woman’s voice had changed. Gotten hard and Selah swallowed her sigh, forced herself to stay calm. She knew this dance too. “I know but maybe there’s something else that can be looked into? Now that I’m further along. It’s just, this baby, it doesn’t feel right. I don’t feel right.” Concern again, the woman’s hand on her shoulder. “Every pregnancy is different. Are you getting enough rest? It must be hard with other children. Do you have help at home?” She closed her eyes, let the sigh loose this time. “No. I haven’t been sleeping. I have these dreams, nightmares. They wake me up. I don’t live with anyone.” “About the baby?” the woman asked. “No. Yes. I don’t know. There’s fire and this strange sound that almost seems like singing. And so much pain.” She gripped the fabric of her leggings in her fists, overwhelmed with the memory of it. She didn’t know why she told the woman, she had to tell someone. She had to hope they would listen. “Pain?” the doctor perked up, latching on to something she could understand, monitor. “Are you in pain?” “No. It’s not that. In the nightmare I just know there’s pain.” “So your baby and body feel fine?” She considered laughing, forced it down to live with her anger. “No, not really. There’s something wrong. When it moves, it’s just wrong. Like there’s too much of it.” “Women with gestational diabetes often have larger babies but we’ve been keeping on eye on them and-.” “I don’t have diabetes. I’m telling you, there’s something off!” Selah looked away, dug her nails into her thighs. She shouldn’t have raised her voice, shouldn’t have snapped. The woman wouldn’t listen now. She had already lost. “You’re tired. The stress of an unplanned pregnancy can be a lot to handle alone. I encourage you to reach out to family for help and let me just,” she looked back at the tablet, made a note. “Help you get connected with some mental health services. They’ll have a few numbers for you to contact at check out, alright? There’s nothing wrong with the baby.” “It wasn’t unplanned. I didn’t plan it but something did,” she mumbled. “What?” the doctor asked, hand on the door. “Nothing, thank you,” she answered. The woman was gone and the baby in her twisted and danced all wrong against the walls of her womb. She closed her eyes and saw fire and blood and pain and there was no baby for her to hold. She touched her belly and wondered if she had prayed more if it would have kept the devil away. But she knew it wouldn’t have mattered. Knew he picked her because everyone thought her babies, born Black and fatherless, were damned already. No one would listen to her pleas that this one really was. The post PseudoPod 743: Flash on the Borderlands LIV: Stage Three: The Bargain appeared first on PseudoPod.
33 minutes | 4 months ago
PseudoPod 742: The Sea Thing
Author : Frank Belknap Long Narrator : Andrew Leman Host : Alasdair Stuart Audio Producer : Chelsea Davis Discuss on Forums This story was first published in Weird Tales, December 1925. The Sea Thing by Frank Belknap Long The post PseudoPod 742: The Sea Thing appeared first on PseudoPod.
46 minutes | 4 months 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 | 4 months 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 | 4 months 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.
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