Archive for the ‘Original Stories’ Category

Free Original Fiction from Weird Tales Issue #356

Monday, December 20th, 2010

“Secretario” by Catherynne M. Valente

© 2010. Catherynne M. Valente. All rights reserved.

In the City, there are three kinds of people: the dead, the devils, and the detectives.

The dead are women; the devils are men. Have you ever noticed that? The detectives, by law, can go either way, but look around: you won’t see too many skirts.

So begins the diary of Mala Orrin, my superior in all the ways that count. She smelled of leather, not the black, soldierly kind, but the warm, beaten brown leather of a briefcase often oiled and well loved, or of a journal often thumbed. She wore long trenchcoats; a hat the color of wheat. Sensible shoes, the kind of shoes you wear to run after people. After devils.

I never saw her face. Her hat, cocked at the same angle, cast its shadow on her face like a knight’s visor. A woman, obscured.

And I never noticed. I should have. Everything she ever wrote down, I read. I sat at a desk and took her dictation,  requisitioned her pistols, had her coats cleaned when the blood-spray got too noticeable. But every time she looked down at a body, impassive as a god, her cigarette Hephaestean, her mind Athene, she could see the pattern, and I saw only her.

Every case begins with a body. To be more precise, it begins with a detective observing a body. How it lies, how it tells the truth.

This is what a dead body looks like:

It is female. Its natural habitat is a dark alley, full of rain-puddles. It is only recently dead-no corruption has set in, not yet. Her skin is perfect, two and a half shades paler than in life. Her hair fans out around her head, floating in the rainwater like a mermaid. She is wearing something that shows her thighs, her breasts, black silk, or red. The fabric folds suggestively, not quite showing her nude, but nearly there. Her lips are scarlet; her shoes are black. Her name is something simple and anonymous: Anna, or Sarah, or Claire. Because it doesn’t really matter who she is. She is waiting for the detective; she’s already met the devil. She lays like a lover for the detective to use, her legs open, her mouth open, her eyes open, her wounds open, everything about her open, inviting the gaze of the detective, that death enthusiast. The detective is a libertine—he has eyes for all of them. They bleed for him, so that he will know her. So that someone will know her.

But I don’t see a lover. I look down as the rain sluices off the brim of my hat and her blood is running into the gutters and I see a mirror. I am she and she is me and we are going to go into the dark together.

This is why the other detectives are men. It’s so ugly, the other way round.

I don’t believe she was the only one. Surely, in the history of the City, there was another woman detective. There must be a feminine noun, in the language of the City. Detectiva. Something. But to be honest I can’t think of one. I was her secretary, her understudy, her second. She never consulted me. The girls in the steno pool never asked me to tea. It was a lonely life, and I had to fetch my own coffee. Mala Orrin and I ate together in a diner across the street from the office. She always had steak, rare as a gunshot wound, scotch with two ice cubes, and a slice of cherry pie with kiss of ice cream. I always had salad. Toast. Coffee—black. I don’t like to eat anything red. If there are only three sorts, then the steno pool is only the waiting dead, and I a waiting devil, for I was never any kind of detective. Either way, red reminds me of these things, and I don’t want to be reminded.

There must be a word, in the language of the City, for a male secretary. Secretario. Something. It was decided by the higher-ups that if we were to suffer a woman detective, she must have a male secretary. The natural order must be maintained. The doorman leaned out into the street and whistled—I turned my head. That’s how I was chosen. I turned my head at a sharp, high sound, and they offered me ten dollars a day to keep her notes in order. Good money. And there’s never any shortage of bodies in the City. Detectives do a brisk business here. You could say it’s our primary industry.

This is what a devil looks like:

It is male. It wears black. He skulks—that is his primary means of locomotion. His face is broad and craggy, his eyes dark. Everything about him is closed: his lips, his heart, his coat. He hunches-over a weapon, an erection, a deformity, a secret. His hands are big; there is a lot of meat on him. His name is something simple and anonymous: John, Jim, Nick. Because it doesn’t really matter who he is, either. He is not quiet when he hunts the dead girl-already dead, from the moment he saw her. He killed her with looking, with wanting. All that’s left is the denouement.

He never uses a gun. It’s a knife, or garroting-sometimes, if he loves her especially, he will beat her to death. It has to be intimate, or it is no good. A woman has two lovers in her life: her murderer, and her avenger. First she lies down beneath the devil as he cuts her, blood trickles beautifully, delicately from her mouth, cinematically, as though anyone but the devil could see how perfect the trickle truly is. It is all for him. He is careful not to rip her clothes; he is courteous to the detective, who will come after. He does not want to spoil the scene for him.

Every time my office takes a call, hears a name, an address, I think: this time the body will be a man. He will be laid out for me, so thoughtfully, his angelic face in a rictus of foreknowledge. Death will have worn a woman’s face, and opened him up, passing this body from herself to me. I will reach out into the shadows and touch that devil, and she will take my hand, and we will understand each other.

All detectives ever do is summon devils. Out of the night, out of blood ritual. Logic is a lie. Deduction is a fell rite.

It’s not hard for a secretary to pick a desk-lock. They aren’t sturdy things. I took her diary. She’s gone; she won’t mind. And the diary of a great detective—surely I could open it to any page and solve a crime, read from it as from a book of spells and reveal the depths of the shadows, the glint of truth in the grime. If I had a deftness at deduction, even a drop, I’d have gone to the College, and have my own secretary by now. Someone nice, in a pale blue wool suit, with her hair done up just so, and her coffee would be perfect, every time, black as the bottom line. But the College takes them young. Children who sleep with magnifying glasses and suckle at churchwarden pipes, who conduct inquiries among their toys. Demand for detectives is high—the City is a harsh cauldron. Sometimes we see them die. Sometimes we see them running away from a crumpled form. We could interfere, but we understand it’s not our place. Once she’s dead—and yes, Mala is right, I can’t remember the last time a man died here—she belongs to the detective, like a father passing the bride to her groom.

Everyone exists to serve the detectives. Every diner, every office, every laundromat, every priest.

The detectives, or the devils.

For a long time I didn’t know which way I would go. I loved lipstick as a child; I stole my mother’s beautiful crimson shades and applied then with a delicacy beyond my age. She wept when she saw me, for she thought she knew then how I’d end up. The question is always how long can you last in the queue. The devils are hungry but not insatiable. It can take time for them to get around to you. Like taking a number at the butcher. He’ll get around, eventually.

But then, she’d named me Mala. Not Anna, not Sarah, not Claire.

My mother died when I was thirteen. That’s what mothers do, of course. And I found her, her seamed hose spattered with rain and blood, her heels gleaming, her blue eyes staring. I was wearing my father’s long coat, and I was always tall. The detectives who came to the scene left immediately-they assumed I was one of them, that I was already on the case. Detectives are territorial. Monogamous. You just don’t barge in on another man’s girl.

They all want to know how I solved it. Still-over cigars and brandy in the executive offices one of them will always lean in, boozily, and slur:

“C’mon, Orrin, tell us how you solved yer ma.”

I keep my mystery. It’s safer that way. The three parts of the City’s soul are in a delicate balance, and even a detective can turn on you.

The truth is: I went out into the rain and drew a circle in the earth with her blood. I put her dress in one quadrant, a bottle of her perfume in another, her dress in a third, and her lipstick in the last. I waited.

I wasn’t really surprised when my father came around the corner, sniffing like a bloodhound.

I remember the last case we worked together, before she disappeared. I carried a silver thermos full of coffee, like a bullet, and drove her to the scene. I glanced into the rear view mirror; her hat shadowed her face, all I saw was the slightest curve of a full lip, as red as meat. I turned the radio dial—a horn played, low and sad, and she lit her cigarette with a golden lighter.

The dead woman was so beautiful she stopped my heart. I almost thought she was still alive, her face was flushed, her breasts full and high under her spangled dress. A singer, I’d seen her in one of the detectives’ clubs. Fridays are secretaries’ night. The woman sang old jazz tunes. Her hair was black; her eyes were blue. The wound was at the back of her head-I’d missed it entirely. But her blood seeped from her skull in medusa-curls, and Mala Orrin looked at her without saying a word. Turned to stone.

I wanted to stand where she stood. I wanted to stand over that woman, that radiant dead seraph. I wanted to be so full of power I didn’t even have to speak for everyone to know I owned her. I felt that desire in me, red as meat. I wanted a hat to shadow my face, to flex my invisibility as she did.

I poured her coffee. It steamed in the dark. She didn’t even look at me.

In an hour, I drove her back to the office. She passed a note up the pneumatic tubes, up to the executive floors.

John Brown, bartender. Number 5, A Street. Icepick.

And that was the end of it. They brought him in, screaming, his shoulders huge, covered in the singer’s blood like a victor’s cape.

A sorcerer’s methods are easier to guess.

Sometimes I think about leaving the City. Surely, there is somewhere else to go, though I’ll be damned if I can think of any place. When I try to imagine other cities, my mind fills up with the faces of dead girls. Most of the time I figure other Cities are just like this one. But on the occasional night when there are no deaths, or at least none assigned to me, I drive out to the City limits and look at the black whip of road, disappearing off into nothing, into the dark, and I shiver because I am not safe. I thought the coat and the hat and the secretary and the dinner drinks[a1] would make me safe, make me not like them, make me part of a tribe that is immune to the devil and his tricks. But I’m never safe.

We live to die. When I see them in the street they have never been realer than in that moment, never brighter, never more beautiful. Persephone with Hades’ hand at her throat, dancing, dancing in the evening light.

The essence of detection is causation: because of this, that. Because he loved her and she didn’t love him back. Because he leaves iron filings in his footprints, we’ll find him in the factory where he works to make silver thermoses. Because he’s a devil, she’s dead. Because that’s all she ever saw, sometimes she dreams about being dead, being that beautiful, being fawned over, adored, her face on posters, her potential mourned. She dreams a detective with a lantern jaw falls in love with her as she lies bleeding out, and devotes himself, a knight, to avenging her death. To remembering her. In her dreams she is dead and she feels so alive. Because of her dreams, she wakes up sick, half-faint, her hands shaking until she can get the cork out of the bottle and smell the dirt-scent of scotch wafting out, like a grave.

Because she was good at her job, she escaped the devil for years.

But nothing lasts forever.

I admit it—I loved her. It’s all love. I didn’t need her diary to understand that. Love on both sides of death. I wanted to see her face, that’s all. So badly. Cherries on her breath. Ice cream. The black silk of her blouse. If this were a better place, if the City weren’t a devil in its own right, that would have been so simple. But you live in the world you’re given. You may feel contempt for it, even as you do your living, but you can’t escape your nature. She’s gone, and she’ll be missed. There will be a memorial, I’m sure. Her face in stone, perfect, completed. The natural life cycle of the detective.

Her handwriting is long and lanky, like a man’s. She speaks to me, out of the pages, and teaches me the devil’s due. I’ll be promoted soon. Secretaries get the news first, after all. I’ll be passing brandy from glass to glass on the executive floor by mid-month. I bought a hat last week-grey felt, with a black band and a wisp of ptarmigan feather tucked in. I’d hoped the diary would help me, but the dead can’t speak to the devil. So I come to the office early. I pour my own coffee, and watch the sun come up, the first steno pool girls coming in like morning birds.

They are so beautiful.

The essence of detection is cyclical. Around and around, chasing each other, footfalls sounding on black pavement, and the rain pouring down forever.

“Mr. Nine and the Gentleman Ghost”

Tuesday, October 12th, 2010

Original Fiction: Mr. Nine and the Gentleman Ghost
by Aidan Doyle

copyright © 2010 / May not be reproduced without permission

Elisabeth gave her invitation to the valet and received a gilt-edged program in return. It welcomed her to the Bearbrass Gentle Ladies Society Monthly Ball. The valet glanced at Elisabeth’s satchel and then escorted her into the ballroom.

Bearbrass had been a sleepy colonial outpost until gold was discovered in the nearby hills. Within three years, it had been transformed into the largest city in all of the colonies. Elisabeth did not think of this as necessarily an improvement.

A dozen chandeliers clung to the ceiling and paintings imported from the empire competed for space on the walls. An orchestra of more than twenty musicians waited on the stage at the far end of the room.

Mrs. Rittiker, the president of the Bearbrass Gentle Ladies Society, greeted Elisabeth at the entrance. She was a short, stout woman in her early fifties and wore a purple chiffon gown with a plunging neckline. “You’ve come without a chaperone again,” she said. “If I were half the gentle lady I pretend to be, I would be thoroughly scandalized.”

Elisabeth laughed. Although ostensibly the Gentle Ladies Society served as an organizer of social functions, the society’s inner council was devoted to recovering the lost knowledge of the ancient gentle ladies. She had known Mrs. Rittiker all of her life. She handed over the satchel. “Fresh from the book mines.”

Mrs. Rittiker opened the bag and took out a book. She brushed a speck of dirt from the cover and smiled when she read the title: The Gentle Ladies’ Guide to Midnight Apparitions. “No one has your talent for finding books, Elisabeth.”

She replaced the book in the satchel and handed it to a servant. “Take this to my carriage.” She took Elisabeth by the hand. “There are some handsome young men waiting to see you.” Mrs. Rittiker led her over to the other guests and a dozen young men formed a line in front of her.

Elisabeth suppressed a sigh. The only reason she came to the balls was to meet Bertie, and he was always irritatingly late.

“This is Horatio Lightfellow,” Mrs. Rittiker said. “He arrived on this morning’s zeppelin from the empire.”

“Charmed to meet you,” Lightfellow said. “At some point in the evening I would be most happy to inform you of the latest fashions in the capital.” His gaze strayed to Elisabeth’s hair. She had been born with hair made from gold.

“I had been told of the remarkable properties of Bearbrass gold,” he said. “But I wasn’t aware it extended to the city’s inhabitants.”

Elisabeth could think of nothing less interesting than talking about what clothes people she had never met were wearing. “I was conceived in a gold mine,” she said.

Lightfellow looked shocked. “I hardly think that’s something a young lady should mention.” He looked to Mrs. Rittiker for assistance. “I had heard tales of the wild women in the colonies, but I had presumed them exaggerated.”

“Bearbrass Gentle Ladies are not as gentle as the ladies of the empire,” Mrs. Rittiker said. “We take great pride in that.”

“My father was a gold prospector,” Elisabeth said. “My mother was a librarian. I am a book prospector.”

“She’s the best in all the colonies,” Mrs. Rittiker added. “Her heart is made from gold too.”

Lightfellow appeared lost for words. “May I have the pleasure of the last dance?” he eventually asked.

“I’m terribly sorry, Mr. Lightfellow,” Elisabeth replied. “I always leave the last dance free.”
He checked his program. “The seventeenth dance?”

“I would be most pleased to dance with you.” She wrote Lightfellow in the space next to 17 on her program.

Lightfellow bowed and hastily retreated. The next man stepped forward and the process continued. She insisted on leaving the last dance free.

The orchestra started playing. Her first partner led her onto the polished hardwood floor. She danced a waltz, changed partners, danced a polka, then a one step and another waltz. Her partners were a mixture of gold prospectors, bankers and cattle kings. Halfway through the night they paused for supper and crowded around tables laden with cakes and pastries. Elisabeth helped herself to a slice of chocolate cake.

Mrs. Rittiker gathered a crowd around her and began a lengthy tale of her exploits on the cricket field.
Elisabeth overheard Lightfellow expressing his disapproval of Bearbrass women.
Then everyone fell silent. Elisabeth turned around.

A four foot high ventriloquist’s puppet stood at the entrance to the room. It wore a dark suit and orange bow tie and clenched a poster in its right hand. The puppet marched mechanically towards the stage, its wooden limbs jerking as though pulled by invisible strings.

Elisabeth leaned over to Mrs. Rittiker. “Who’s that?”

“Mr. Nine. The Governor hired it to crush the miners’ rebellion. Now it can go wherever it pleases. Even the Governor’s scared of it.”

The puppet slowly made its way up the stage stairs. It took a moment to survey the crowd. “Mr. Nine is most sorry to intrude.” It unfurled a wanted poster, revealing a sketch of a monkey. “Mr. Nine wants this monkey spirit. Have you seen it?”

No one spoke. The puppet sniffed the air. It stared at Elisabeth.

Her heart hammered against her chest. “How did it come to life?” she whispered.

“The gold did it. Now it has to eat gold to stay alive.” Mrs. Rittiker glanced at Elisabeth’s golden strands. “You should be careful, my dear.”

A servant placed a table and stool at the edge of the stage. The puppet sat down and rested its elbows on the table. The little finger on its left hand was missing.

“Why is it looking for a monkey spirit?” Elisabeth asked.

“A monkey spirit bit off one of its fingers.”

A servant brought a pile of pancakes sprinkled with gold dust to Mr. Nine’s table. The puppet began eating with great gusto, shoveling the pancakes into its little mouth. It washed them down with a glass of iced water mixed with gold flakes.

The orchestra resumed playing and Elisabeth’s next dance partner escorted her onto the floor. She couldn’t help glancing at Mr. Nine and twice accidentally stood on her partner’s foot. The puppet finished eating the pancakes and licked its lips with its bright green tongue.

The dances continued until it was almost time for the last dance. Captain Albert Widdershins floated through the far wall and strode through the orchestra. The musicians scattered. No one liked having a ghost walk through them.

Elisabeth felt the tension slip away. Bertie always liked to make a grand entrance. He was six feet tall with a ramrod-straight back, a trim moustache and short hair. He had once been a zeppelin captain and wore riding boots and a tight-fitting military uniform. She could sense the envy of the other young ladies. He was the most handsome gentleman ghost in all of Bearbrass. He had died in the mines and the gold had brought him back.

He nodded to Mrs. Rittiker and glided over to Elisabeth. “If you’ll permit me to say so, you look most enchanting tonight, Miss Elisabeth.”

“Permission granted, Captain Widdershins.”

“I must once again apologize for my tardiness.”

“The hour grows late, Captain. I fear the last dance is almost upon us.”

He stepped closer to her. “If the lady would be so kind as to allow me to touch her golden locks.”

She nodded. He slipped off his gloves and put them in his belt. When his spectral hand met Elisabeth’s hair, a jolt of energy coursed through her. His ghostly hand assumed a solid form and gradually his whole body transformed into solid flesh.

His hand lingered a moment on her hair. “May I have the last dance?”

She pretended to check her program. Then she took his arm in hers. His body was cold, but she felt it growing warmer.

In her excitement at Bertie’s arrival, she had almost forgotten about Mr. Nine. The puppet watched silently from its stool. She tried to put it out of her mind.

The last dance was a waltz. The captain encircled her waist with his right arm and took her right hand in his left. He twirled her and led her around in a circle. The rest of the world seemed to disappear. It was just the music and Bertie’s strong arms. It felt like they had only been dancing for a few seconds and then the music finished.

“Once again, Miss Elisabeth you have enchanted me with your grace and beauty,” Bertie said. “I warrant that even the Queen of the Fairies would acknowledge you as the superior dancer.”

Elisabeth laughed. “And I warrant that even the King of the Leprechauns would acknowledge you as the superior flatterer.”

Footsteps sounded behind her. She turned to see Mr. Nine.

The puppet bowed. “Mr. Nine would like to request the last dance.”

“But the last dance has just finished,” she said.

“That was the second last dance,” the puppet replied. “The orchestra will play again. What is the lady’s preference? A waltz?”

“I’m sorry, but the evening is late. I must be getting home.”

“Do not concern yourself. Mr. Nine’s carriage will take you home.”

Captain Widdershins stepped in front of Elisabeth. “The lady has said she is going home. It is the height of bad manners to persist in bothering her.”

Mr. Nine stared at Widdershins. “Mr. Nine is requesting the last dance. This does not concern you.”

Elisabeth put a hand on his shoulder. “It’s all right, Bertie.” She looked down at Mr. Nine. “Thank you for your offer, but Captain Widdershins has already agreed to escort me home.”

The puppet sniffed the air and its green tongue crept along its lips. “Mr. Nine is hungry. Mr. Nine likes your smell.” The puppet stared at Elisabeth’s chest.

Widdershins plucked a glove from his belt and slapped Mr. Nine across the face.

The puppet’s eyes rolled in surprise and it glared up at Widdershins. “Mr. Nine accepts your challenge.”

* * *

The Bearbrass cricket oval also served as the dueling grounds. Elisabeth and Bertie walked to the oval, followed by a crowd of onlookers. Mr. Nine traveled by carriage.

As the host of the ball, the duty of overseeing the duel fell to Mrs. Rittiker. She directed the servants as they laid out a number of lanterns in a circle.

Elisabeth and Bertie waited near the lanterns. Clouds obscured the moon, and shadows hid Bertie’s face.

“I don’t want you to do this,” she said.

“I don’t want to do this either,” he replied. “But I have no choice. If I don’t stop the puppet, it will come for you. It wants to eat your heart.”

“Let me worry about that. I can always hide in the mines.”

“It is my duty as a gentleman to protect you.”

“I can look after myself. Who is going to look after you?”

“I am a most accomplished duelist,” he replied.

“Why do you have to fight now? If you wait until morning, you’ll be spectral again.”

“If I’m spectral, I can’t hold a gun,” Bertie said.

“What happens if a ghost is killed?” she asked.

“If a ghost dies, you should collect some of its blood. Ghost blood has many powers.” He paused and then said, “I want you to promise me that you’ll take the first zeppelin in the morning if I don’t win.”

Elisabeth shook her head. “Not without you.”

“You know it won’t be safe here. Promise me.”

“Only if you promise that you won’t die.”

Bertie laughed. “I’m already dead.”

Mrs. Rittiker walked over to them. “You shouldn’t go through with this,” she said. “The puppet is near unkillable. The only thing that can stop it is if you bite off parts of its body. That’s why it can’t replace its finger. The monkey spirit bit it off.”

“Thank you for your concern, dear lady. I shall disable the puppet with a shot to the head and then I shall use my teeth to sever what body parts I deem necessary.”

Elisabeth took his hand. “Please, Bertie.”

“A zeppelin captain never backs away from a fight.”

Mrs. Rittiker sighed. “Then we are ready to start.” She walked to the center of the circle.
Bertie squeezed her fingers. “Goodbye Beth.” He let go of her hand and followed Mrs. Rittiker.

Mr. Nine’s driver opened the puppet’s carriage door. Mr. Nine stepped out of the carriage and set off towards the circle. The driver took a wicker laundry basket from inside the carriage and then followed after the puppet.

Mr. Nine marched into the illuminated circle. The driver stopped at the edge of the crowd. About fifty onlookers, including several women, had come from the ball to watch the spectacle. Their faces were hidden in the shadows cast by the lanterns, but Elisabeth heard their excited voices. Witnessing a duel between a puppet and a ghost would give them a tale to entertain their society friends.
Elisabeth swore at the top of her voice.

The crowd fell into a shocked silence.

“Be quiet,” she said softly.

Mrs. Rittiker waited until Bertie and the puppet stood next to each other.

“Do either of you wish to withdraw from this duel?”

“No,” Bertie said.

“Mr. Nine is ready to fight,” the puppet said.

Mrs. Rittiker handed a dueling pistol to each of the combatants. They inspected the guns and then exchanged them. They took up positions at opposite edges of the circle.

Elisabeth noticed that Mr. Nine’s driver had opened the wicker basket and was peering into it.
Mrs. Rittiker held a red handkerchief in her hand. She lifted her arm and then dropped the handkerchief.

Bertie aimed his gun and fired. Mr. Nine’s wooden head exploded.

The puppet’s body raised its gun and shot Bertie between the eyes.

Captain Widdershins tumbled to the ground.

Elisabeth sprinted to his side. She shook him, but he didn’t respond. His body was cold. She wiped the blood from his face with her handkerchief. She closed his eyes and kissed his cold lips. His body faded away.

Mr. Nine’s driver carried a wooden head with an identical face on it towards Mr. Nine’s headless body.

* * *

Elisabeth put on her pair of cats-eye spectacles and stepped into the mine shaft. It was dark, but the glasses allowed her to see. After ten minutes she reached a large cavern with a dozen tunnels branching off in different directions. She knew this area well and had a good idea where to look for the book she wanted. She chose one of the tunnels leading south.

Eventually she noticed some small, brown, spotted, speckled mushrooms. The wall was moist, damp, clotted and earthen. Adjectives were one of the most common signs of buried books. Now all she had to do was find a subtext. She put her nose against the earth. There was the faint smell of lemon. She followed the scent until she found a vein of books hidden near the wall. She took a small spade from her tool bag and started clearing away the dirt from the top of the dozens of books. It took her three hours, but eventually she found the book she was looking for.

Separating a book from the earth required a precision tool. It was easy to make mistakes. Several times in the past, she had cut the pages and the words had bled everywhere.

She probed the dirt at the edge of the cover with her book scalpel. After a few delicate cuts, she removed the book from the ground and looked at the cover.

The Gentle Ladies’ Field Guide to Animal Spirits.

She leafed through it until she found an illustration that matched the sketch on the wanted poster.

The golden spectral monkey.

She carefully excised the page and smeared it with the ghost blood from her handkerchief. The page transformed into a spectral monkey.

“Do you know who I want you to kill?” she asked.

The monkey nodded. “I need gold to make me corporeal,” it said.

Elisabeth grabbed her pair of scissors. She was about to cut a lock of her hair, but the monkey shook its head.

“I require greater payment,” it said.

It pointed at her heart.

* * *

Every month Elisabeth attends the Bearbrass Gentle Ladies Society Monthly Ball. She is not nearly as graceful a dancer as she used to be. A wooden heart is not an ideal substitute for one made of gold. But she is still the most beautiful girl in all of Bearbrass and many men want to dance with her.

They ask if they can have the last dance, but Elisabeth apologizes.

She always leaves the last dance free.

[end]


About the Author:

Aidan Doyle is an Australian writer and computer programmer. He loves traveling and has visited more than 70 countries. He is a Clarion South graduate and his stories and articles have been published in places such as Fantasy Magazine, The Internet Review of Science Fiction, Salon.com, Science Fiction Weekly and Australian small press magazines.

“Ambient Morgue Music”

Friday, November 13th, 2009

AMBIENT MORGUE MUSIC
by Richard Howard

copyright © 2009 / May not be reproduced without permission

(from Weird Tales #354, Fall 2009)

* * *

The best thing about being a reviewer is that you often receive music in the old fashioned way, via a CD through your letterbox. Anyone jaded with this century’s downloading obsession and its associated esoterica of bit rates, compressions and conversions will no doubt be turning snot-coloured with envy at this point. [Oh, the quaint and glamorous life you lead… Ed.] Yes, I actually receive music through the post with handwritten covers, illustrations, bribes, pleas, death threats… and on top of that, the music is good.

Yes, it seems that only now in the 2030s is the true character of this millennium’s sound finally being heard. It’s early days yet but, for my money, the best stuff is being made right here, in Dublin. I know that looking at most mags these days you wouldn’t know it, but most of this music is being made far away from the hubris of the mainstream music business, by the disenfranchised, who can barely afford to eat, never mind pay a publicity agent. My favourite music of the last six months has, for the most part, arrived unexpectedly in my hallway like a burglar, a begging letter, a Halloween firework.

Ambient Morgue Music is one I look forward to in particular. There have been four volumes so far, arriving monthly, each accompanied with a black-and-white photograph of a corpse and a handful of soil. The track names, listed on the back, speak of bloody revolution, disease and, for reasons that will become clear later on, zoo animals. The music itself is an eerie type of lo-fi ambient; at times it’s hard to make out the music from the microphone hiss, but I presume that that’s part of the aesthetic, the sound of the room putting you right where they want you. It’s beautifully hypnotic, filled with dread and, as I found out this week, truly revolutionary.

The only contact information provided is a mobile phone number and it changes with every dispatch. Since the first Ambient Morgue’s arrival I’ve been trying desperately to contact the artist or artists, but each time the phone has either been disconnected or I get the generic answering machine drone. Last week I finally made a connection.

“Hello.” —A thick Dublin accent.

“Hello, you sent me some CDs. I really think they’re great; would I be able to meet you and have a chat? I’d like to do a piece on them.”

“Yeah de CD, ye like it yeah?”

“I think it’s some of the best music being made at the moment.”

“Okay, which one are you? Whereabouts are ye?”

“I’m living on North Circular Road.”

“Ah sure, yer only five minutes up the road. Sure come up now if ye like. Ye know where the Phoenix is. Just gis a shout when yer at the monument.”

My brain froze for a second. “Um… yeah, okay. I’ll give you a ring when I get there.”

Why had I never been to the Phoenix Park before? I’ve lived on North Circular Road for almost ten years, but I had never turned right upon leaving my house, always left towards Phibsboro. Sometimes if I was walking into the city I’d cross the road and follow the picturesque houses of Oxmantown road, before turning left and strolling through Stoneybatter, towards the River Liffey. Why had I never chosen to take my walk in one of the largest city parks in the world? Come to think of it, why does nobody I know ever talk about it, let alone go there? My head swam with these, and many other questions, as I threw on my winter coat. Leaving the house I turned right, feeling slightly askew.

It was twilight as I made my way up the road. I looked around for something to keep me grounded in what I had come to believe was reality; I fixed on the trees, trying to ignore the colossal monument coming into view. Surely I’d have noticed something of that size at the end of the road I lived on.

I entered the park and followed the winding path to the monument. I took out my phone, but there was no need. He found me. An ordinary-looking young man, smartly dressed but slightly disheveled.

“Story bud?” The easy, familiar colloquialism took the edge off the uneasy, illusory feeling that had grown inside me since leaving my house.

“Hello, pleased to meet you.” I offered my hand and we shook solidly.

He introduced himself as Dessy and then walked away, gesturing that I should follow him.

Reader, in my youth I enjoyed reading the fiction of the fantastical. Future dystopian nightmares, journeys to the stars and magickal conspiracies, I devoured them all. Bearing this in mind, I would have thought that what I’m about to explain would have been that much easier to comprehend. But, for all the reading in my youth of the classics of imaginative fiction, I was still left with nothing to compare with what unfolded over the next hour or so, beginning with the sight that startled me as we stood on top of that hill. On the area around the monument in the Phoenix Park I saw what I can only describe as a shantytown.

My stomach turned in giddy dread. I was so taken aback that Dessy had to let me stand for a while to take it in, my brain processing and reprocessing, programming and reprogramming. It was mind-blowing enough to be standing in a colossal green area in the middle of the city that had been completely erased from my consciousness like an early morning dream, but this threatened to smother my wits altogether. Rows and rows of dilapidated huts as far as I could see were broken here and there by mud tracks. Campfires burned. I could see people, too, going about their business as if following a daily routine. The atmosphere was one that my mind had never experienced, but that my body recalled, something primal and buried. How could this place, situated right in Dublin City, remain unremarked on by society?

I hadn’t much time to entertain such a question, as Dessy beckoned me to follow him and we started down the hill towards the town. I trailed behind him, my head a swarm of ideas. As we got closer I realized that the scene I’d been viewing from the hill was less rustic than I’d first assumed. Everyone appeared reasonably well-groomed and fed; the men, women and children all wore modern clothing; and the children played with toys, handheld games and bikes that placed them firmly in the center of the twenty-first century. The huts themselves, on the other hand, were made from the kind of materials I would imagine have been employed for such purposes for over a hundred years: corrugated iron, tin, loose wood, plastic sheeting, cardboard and old furniture all converged to create the bric-a-brac village we stepped through. I saw a deer being roasted over an upturned shopping trolley and then remembered reading about the deer of Phoenix Park when I was young—a realization both nostalgic and grisly given the circumstances.

Seeing the flames licking around that beast’s carcass served me well in one way, though, as I began to come to my senses somewhat and my journalistic instincts began to kick in. How did these people get here? Why had nobody ever heard of them? Where was the music made? As we walked further these turned into questions about self-preservation. What did they intend to do with me? Was the music just a ruse to kidnap a member of the press?

We stopped at another campfire. Thankfully this one didn’t contain any recently deceased wildlife, just a handful of men and women warming themselves against the intense cold. Dessy took me to the far side of the fire and introduced me to a man called Sean, who signaled for me to sit down on a cushion by the fire. Dessy disappeared.

“Now, what would you like to know?” said Sean, scratching his ample beard and staring right into my eyes.

“Um,” I stuttered, taking a second to switch fully back into journalist mode, apparent cosmonaut that I’d become. “Well, how did you get here?”

The light from a fire has a way of changing one’s appearance at every moment but, at a guess, I’d say Sean was in his mid-forties. I studied his jovial, friendly face as he mulled over the question.

“The government,” he said finally.

“That’s it? The government?”

“The Olympics,” he said, and I fidgeted on my cushion, seriously considering walking away. He must have noticed the germ of my impatience, and he began shaking his head apologetically.

“I’m sorry,”’ he said. “After all, we are the ones who have always known. You are the ones who have never known.”

I settled back down as he continued.

“You do remember the Olympics, don’t you?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “Twenty years ago that bloody thing came to our city. Thousands of people forcibly removed from their homes to make way for the Olympic village, the new stadium, twelve-story car parks.” He spat into the fire at the memory. “We were promised houses out in the suburbs — well, they call them suburbs — might as well be outer space.”

“So you sought refuge here?”

“Some of us sought refuge, others were chased here. We fought pitched battles with the police all the way up North Circular Road. Caused quite a stir at the time. At one point it looked like St. Peter’s Church was going to go up in flames. Don’t know how I would have explained that one to him at the Pearly Gates. Hopefully the pigs found a way to erase it from that document, too. Haha.” His laugh turned into a cough and he spat again. The fire sizzled. “Of course some of us were already here, but the numbers were small so nobody really took any notice. Forced removal had been going on since the late nineteen hundreds and those that didn’t want to go usually came here. That caused a bit of resentment at first, because since the newcomers, everybody’s trapped here.”

“Trapped?”

“Yes. From what we can gather, it’s some kind of gravity field. If we try to leave it just propels us back. There are only three people in the whole camp that it doesn’t affect. Dessy is one of them. The rest of us can’t even pass the monument.”

“But how?”

“It was the Olympic Games. Every major technological country in the world had an interest in the games running smoothly. The amount of technology Ireland would have had at its disposal would have been unprecedented.”

“But what about everyone else… outside…”

He just shrugged his shoulders and said, “But sure, isn’t it the music you came here for? Come on.”

We walked until the huts began to thin out, and I got a twitch of recall as in the distance I saw a naggingly familiar sign: DUBLIN ZOO.

“I haven’t been here in…” I let the sentence trail off, giving in to what now appeared to be a full-scale hallucination. Deciding to jump onto surer ground, I began questioning him about the music as we pushed through the gates.

“So how did you make the music?”

“Gas.”

I shook off his obvious flippancy and persisted with my questioning, “How do you record it?”

“My only inheritance was a suitcase full of microphones. My Dad used to record bands years and years ago. He was always buying microphones. He loved sound, god bless him and not much else… I just use them and an old computer…”

I had followed him into what used to be the reptile house.

“Don’t worry,” he said, switching on a light, “most of the animals are long dead. At the height of the battle we released a lot of them and charged the cops. The rhinos and hippos caused the most mayhem, not to mention the big cats. They were all gunned down in the end, of course. I feel terrible about that, but we made the choice. We did what we thought we had to do. Anyway, do you like it? My home studio.”

I looked around the former reptile house with the same awe that visited me atop that hill. Memories started to awaken, doors unlocked in my brain that someone evidently wanted closed forever. At that point I remembered this place, reader, even if you do not. I remembered the crocodile, the iguana and the snakes but they were gone. Each case had been turned into a recording booth, with microphones hanging from the ceiling; the largest case contained a mixing desk and a computer. Even stranger, though, was when I came in for a closer look at the booths and saw the dead body lying on a slab in each one. Sean saw the look on my face and laughed a maniac’s laugh.

“My instruments,” he said.

I couldn’t comprehend what I was feeling, hearing, seeing. Silence seemed the only option that wouldn’t further submerge my flailing sanity. My companion simply smiled and continued.

“Some of us did consider moving in here when we arrived. But then we thought that it would be better used as a kind of mausoleum. Less chance of disease spreading if we keep the dead over here. Then I had the idea of putting my studio in here, and the two ideas kind of eventually meshed together.”

My continued silence told him I still didn’t understand.

“Dead bodies fart. Anybody who works in a morgue will tell you that. All those pipes and organs and valves finally getting to relax after all those years tensed up.” He stuck out his tongue and blew a chilling raspberry, letting it echo for a second, before continuing. “The music you’re hearing is basically my recordings of gas being released from corpses. I manipulate the sounds somewhat of course . . . mostly layering them on top of each other. The last CD we sent you was a new experiment I was working on where I’m actually playing the body. I’ve developed a kind of stopper so I can restrict the flow of air from the body, while applying pressure to certain points. It’s early days yet… I don’t think I’ve even begun to scratch the surface of the potential here… I don’t think I’m far off a rudimentary scale, though.”

I still couldn’t talk.

“Oh, before I forget—” He produced a CD from his coat and put it in my hand. I was in so much shock that I nearly dropped it. He actually had to close my hand around it.

“The giraffe died last week… marvelous, elongated movements… this is just a rough demo of the stuff I’ve done with it… let me know what you think.”

Evidently I was too stunned to ask any more questions, so we both made for the exit in silence. We cut through the shantytown and, at the bottom of the hill where it all began, he bade me farewell.

“Don’t forget why we do this,” he said. “Be sure and let everyone know about us.”

I managed to force out a ‘yes,’ and scaled the hill, feeling the force of an electric current through my hair as I passed the monument. Only when I was back on North Circular Road did I begin to feel anything like myself again. I was stunned, jaded, but also excited; my hands clutched the CD so hard it hurt, gripping to the only evidence of the strange things I’d seen that night.

I ran the short distance back to my house and slammed the door behind me. Taking the CD from its cover I placed it in the stereo and sat back in my favourite chair. As the beautiful dread of what will probably become Ambient Morgue Volume Five swelled and drifted through the room, I took out the photograph. It was the first one Sean had appeared in himself. He looks like some strange kind of wizard as he works away at the giraffe, like he’s trying to give it back its life — reanimate it. In a way I suppose he is. It looks primitive and futuristic all at once. Slowly the magnitude of this thing started to hit me. I thought of how inspiring and revolutionary the music I was hearing was. The fact that I now knew the circumstances and conditions under which it was recorded made it all the more fantastic. After the music finished I pressed PLAY again and put it on repeat. I sat at the computer and began typing this article. What started out as a simple opinion piece about underground music gradually turned into the pocket odyssey you’ve just read. At this point I couldn’t care less if my sanity is in question; just please, track down this morbidly angry music for yourself. It’s simply some of the best sound you will hear this decade, lovingly crafted by someone that the world chose to forget, whose time to appear from the shadows seems to have arrived.

* * *

Richard Howard is a speculative fiction writer from Dublin, Ireland. To date he has had stories published in Electric Velocipede, M-Brane and Loki’s Journal. In 2008 he won the Weird Tales Spam Fiction contest for his story “Let Yourself Look Spiny.” He currently resides in Dublin 7 where he writes, studies English, and meditates on the exact moment the humdrum becomes the fantastic.

One-Minute Weird Tales: vol.1 no.1

Thursday, July 30th, 2009

At long last, we’re thrilled to launch the first full season of our new web series, “One-Minute Weird Tales.” Story number one is “The Curse and the Revenge,” by Stuart Jaffe, with music by Eric San Juan.

We’ll be releasing these fantastic micro-fictions weekly from now through Halloween. Embed them to your heart’s content — and be sure to follow us via RSS, LiveJournal, or Facebook to catch them all!

(Writers, please note: We have open submissions for these stories.)

“All In”

Friday, March 20th, 2009

ALL IN
by Peter Atwood

nominated for the 2009 Prix Aurora Award

copyright © 2008 / May not be reproduced without permission

(from Weird Tales #350, July/Aug 2008)

[ Download this issue as an ebook ]

* * *

The panel slid open with a shunk. Two eyes peered out.

“Diagnosis?” the voice asked.

I could smell the cigarette smoke, thick behind the closed door. I nodded.

“Show me,” said the voice.

I pulled the creased papers from my shirt pocket, unfolded them against my chest with my free hand, and held them out so the St. Jerome’s Infirmary logo was clearly visible at the top. The eyes took in the sealed ice-cream tub hanging from my left hand, then studied the top sheet of the stapled pages long enough to read it twice. The panel shut. I counted my heartbeats as I waited in the dim corridor. The locks on the other side turned. The door creaked open wide enough for me to slip through.

Inside, four players sat around a low wooden table, its veneer cracked and yellow. A matching cloud of yellow cigarette smoke ghosted the visored lamp above.

The eyes behind the door, it turned out, belonged to a gaunt face that fronted a bald head on a tall, gangly frame. He now sat at a tiny metal desk against the wall and extended a hand to take my paperwork. Under the desk was a row of cold boxes: two vacuum cases with handles, two silver insulated containers, and a large, wide-mouthed thermos. Beside them, a small butcher’s scale.

Baldy laid the papers on his desk and lifted his chin towards my tub. “Anything in there?”

From the center of the room, I heard the riffle of cards. I shook my head.

Baldy looked at me with surprise.

“It’s empty,” I said, handing him the tub. A white vapor stream from the dry-ice inside escaped through a crack in the lid and slid down the side like an evaporating snake.

Baldy set the tub under the desk with the other containers, then flipped to the last page of my stapled paperwork. “Everyone here is lung cancer,” he commented.

I shrugged.

He examined the signature above my doctor’s typed name, his double-jointed finger pressing the paper to the desk. Satisfied, he asked me how much.

“You tell me,” I said. I stretched my hands out, palms up. He examined my right hand closely, then pushed my sleeves up to my elbows.

“Hmmph,” he said, and counted out twenty-three round, white chips from a tray. I took them in two short stacks, and he waved me to the table.

At the back of the room, a man in a wrinkled tan suit was signing a clipboard held out by a man in green cottons. They stood by a door with a small square window. Tan Suit handed back the pen and watched me. His jacket hung from his shoulders, limp with misery. A green tie was stuffed halfway into its pocket. He looked as if he had some shame to hide, but was too curious to turn away. His eyes stayed on me until I reached the table, scraped back an empty chair, and sat.

I coughed. “Hello.”

In response, a card slid towards me. A second slid past to the player on my left. The dealer continued in silence until a pair of cards lay facedown in front of each of us. The four others all anted up with a clatter of chips, and I added mine.

It was two weeks since my doctor had recited my diagnosis to me, my feet dangling in their socks as I listened from his paper-lined exam table. It was sadly common. You hit a certain age and everyone knows someone with an expiry date. Two months, two years — two weeks. But the shock of looking into your doctor’s pale brown eyes, your senses numb, as he delivers death’s personal ETA — you sweat, your stomach hollows out.

The cool hospital air brushed my ankles. I took a breath. “So what happens next?” I asked him.

It’s like being let into a club. The chemical acronyms, the therapy nicknames, the test-result shorthands. And after, all these passwords open new corridors of conversation. “My blood work is up.” “My husband’s serum count is down.” “They bumped my sister to category 4B.” Therapy-group comfort offered over coffee.

It only took a few days before I heard the stories. “Mary’s father gave his leg for his wife. Well, from the knee down. She’s past remission now. Fully healed.” The medical profession doesn’t talk about the Treatment. It came from Argentina, but the scientist was from Mumbai — or the other way round. The incubation was developed in Korea. A virid is populated, distilled, and injected. It can take two or three tries, but success is eighty-plus percent. It’s the donation that’s problematic. The virid incubates in living flesh and marrow, enough to make the whole process unethical. Donors must be genetically distant.

I looked at the player to my left. He was a mountain of a man in a short-sleeved, avocado-print shirt. He stretched forward to stub his butt out against the table. His fat arm jiggled. The pile of chips in front of him would easily last till morning. He inspected his cards and dropped them to the table. His cigarette pack lay on the table beside his cards, and after shaking out a fresh white smoke, he slid the carton in my direction.

“No thanks,” I said. “I’m leukemia.”

“Well, if that don’t beat shit,” he said, and cupped his lighter to the cigarette between his lips.

The others looked at me. To the left of Fatso was a bearded, narrow-eyed man in his fifties. Vertical wrinkles creased the middle of his forehead. Beside him a player hid behind eighties’ Ray-Bans as if this were some Vegas casino. No one was here for the thrill. We rotting players imagine we keep our desperation close to our chest, but all we do is parcel out despair in round pieces of plastic. On my right sat a hunched, gray-haired lady, so thin, shadows cast in the hollow of her collarbone. She coughed and sucked on a cigarette.

This was a lung-patient game — they’re the only ones who don’t care about smoking. I was here ’cause I needed a new table, desperately. My luck had been bad all week. I lifted the corner of my two cards: diamonds, a jack and queen.

When the betting came around to me, I called, and tossed my one chip in. Fatso beside me did the same. Mr. Beard was dealing this hand. He picked up the deck and peeled off three cards, laying them out face-up. Two low spades and the nine of diamonds. The betting went around again noncommittally. I managed to stay in with only one more chip at risk.

Mr. Beard pulled off another card and turned it up. Eight of diamonds. My stomach did a leap.

Ray-Bans reached forward with a pair of chips, and said, “Two.”

The lady to my right tossed her cards forward. “I fold,” she wheezed, then pounded a fist against her chest until she hacked out a long cough.

I resisted the urge to check my cards again. I counted four chips from my pile and tossed them forward. “Raise.”

“Leukemia Boy is here to play,” Fatso deadpanned. The two others still in grunted.

I kept my expression relaxed, and stared at my two cards, still facedown before me. If the final card came up diamonds, I was sitting on a flush. A ten, and I was holding the miracle of a straight flush.

Fatso turned up the corners of his cards, then considered my sixteen remaining chips as if there were some math involved he hadn’t encountered before.

“You in?” Ray-Bans asked him finally.

“Well of course I’m fucking in. I’m one treatment from getting clear and clean, so I’m not leaving here without my pound of flesh.”

A heavy thunk and a sharp yell came from beyond the square-windowed door. I looked around. Tan Suit and Clipboard were gone.

Fatso laughed. “Sounds like my first eight ounces are being prepared.”

For a moment, we all sat listening to the quiet whimpering coming from the next room.

“Just place your bet,” Ray-Bans said.

“I’m gonna raise us all another six.” Fatso separated out six chips with his chubby index finger and slid them into the pot.

Mr. Beard folded, but Ray-Bans stayed in.

I considered the pile in the center of the table. I turned in my chair and looked back at my tub, leaking CO2 under the desk. It was empty, a scary thought. If anyone had been paying attention when I came in, they would know. I had the unsettling impression Fatso would take special delight in the fact that I was wearing all my collateral on my bones. The thing is, when leukemia strikes late in life, it’s swift. How much time did I have left? Your doctor sees your lips tremble, and his eyes soften. He stresses that it’s not precise. Could be more, could be less. Some people live . . . who knows? But all you remember is that first hard and fast date. Mine was up tomorrow.

I pushed my remaining chips into the pot. “I’m all in,” I said.

The dealer picked up the deck and lifted the top card. He paused to note it for himself before laying it down. It was the four of clubs.

My teeth clenched. I had nothing! Not even a pair. Not even, not even . . . shit!

“Well, that’s a kick in the sweet bits,” Fatso chuckled.

I stared at the chips in the pot, going from one to another trying to count the twenty-three specific chips that were mine.

The back door opened and Clipboard escorted Tan Suit back through the room. We all watched. His steps were unsteady. His suit jacket was draped over his left arm, supported in a sling, and at the end of his arm, a round bundle of white gauze was growing a red stain. Clipboard helped him out the door with the locks and then closed it behind. The sound of the latch brought us back to the table.

“I’m out,” said Ray-Bans.

I looked at Fatso. His high forehead was greasy; his eyebrows overhung his bloodshot eyes.

“You’re all in, aren’t you?” he stated.

I ignored him. I needed to see his cards right then. I had to know. “What have you got? Show us what you got.”

He shrugged, leaned back with a hand behind his ear, and stretched the other forward to flip over his cards. I stared at them. I looked at mine, and then looked back, disbelieving.

A two of diamonds and a jack of spades. Fatso had nothing!

“Jack high,” he said.

“Ha!” I burst out. I leaned forward, my ass lifting right off the chair, and flipped my two precious, wonderful, sweet little cards over. The last one to show was the queen of diamonds. Her Mona Lisa lips smiling serenely for everyone to see.

“Queen high!” I said. “I won. I’ve got queen high!” I immediately gathered the pot with both hands, scraping the chips towards me. I was laughing out loud and couldn’t stop. “I’m cashing out,” I declared.

They all looked at me as if I was stupid. The pot was nothing substantial—just a modest beginning to a promising night. But for me, it represented a big enough chunk to get my first treatment incubating. Like I said, luck had been turning on me all week. I wasn’t going to risk losing this pot, or anything else, again.
I carried my chips to the desk, grinning. Clipboard was standing beside Baldy, going over papers. “Cashing out?” Baldy asked.

I nodded and handed him my winnings. He returned them to his tray, counting carefully. Clipboard retrieved my ice-cream tub and one of the insulated containers from under the desk and placed them on the floor, the scale between.

“He gets eleven ounces,” Baldy announced.

“Eleven,” Clipboard repeated, pulling a pair of latex gloves from his green cotton pants and stretching them over his fingers with a snap. A cloudy bath of dry ice overflowed the lip of my tub when he lifted the lid. He packed the CO2 to the sides, making a pocket inside. Then he unzipped the insulation on the larger container and unclasped the lid, releasing a gasp of pressurized air. Someone shuffled cards back at the table, and Fatso laughed. Clipboard reached inside the container and clattered a handful of bluish-pink digits onto the metal pan of the scale. Three fingers, a thumb, four toes, and something I couldn’t identify—a wrist? — frozen and stubby. Their bloodied ends red like the lipstick stain on a half-consumed cigarette.

“Here, you have to sign this,” Baldy said.

I stepped to the desk, and I signed where he showed me, holding the pen carefully. He returned my papers and I slipped them into my pocket. Baldy had finished measuring out my salvation, and held my tub up for me, its lid in place, still leaking CO2.

“You should fix that crack with something.”

“Don’t worry,” I said, “I’m going right to the clinic with this.”

I took it from him, gripping the handle as securely as I could with the two remaining fingers of my right hand.

* * *

Peter Atwood is a writer and editor who lives in Ottawa, Canada, where he once grew up and to where he returned after living in Toronto, Seoul, and Cairo.

“Detours on the Way to Nothing”

Friday, January 9th, 2009

DETOURS ON THE WAY TO NOTHING
by Rachel Swirsky

copyright © 2008 / May not be reproduced without permission

(from Weird Tales #349, March/April 2008)

illustration by Oliver Wetter / Fantasio Fine Arts

It’s midnight when you and your girlfriend, Elka, have your first fight since you moved in together. Words wound, tears flow, doors slam. You storm out of the apartment, not caring where you go as long as it’s far away from her. When you step off the front stoop onto the sidewalk, that’s the moment when the newest version of me is born.

You get on the subway heading toward Brooklyn and ride until the train rumbles out of the tunnels and squeaks into a familiar aboveground stop. The neighborhood isn’t good, but a friend of yours used to live a few blocks away, so you know the area pretty well. At least you won’t get lost while you work off the rest of your anger. You disembark, let your feet pick a direction, and start walking.

That’s how the logic seems from your perspective, but there’s another explanation: I want you to come to me.

By a series of what you think are random turns, you end up in an alley between high rise buildings. Reinforced doors protect apartments built like warehouses; skulls grin on rat poison warning signs nailed beneath barred panes. Abandoned mattresses and broken radios decay in the gutter, accumulating mold and rust.

In a streetlamp spotlight, an old Puerto Rican man hurls bottles at a fifth story window. “Christina!” he yells. “Open up!” A voice shouts down, “She doesn’t live here anymore!” but the man keeps

throwing. Translucent shards collect around his feet. None have flown back into his face yet, but it’s only a matter of time.

The distraction stops you, as I intended. I wanted people around so you’d be less likely to spook.

You look up and see me. I’m the girl on the roof. The edge where I stand is flat as the sidewalk and has no guard rail. You gasp when you notice my toes edging over the precipice — then gasp harder a moment later when you see my hair floating in the wind. It looks like feathers. Just like feathers.

The Puerto Rican man runs out of bottles. He rubs his sore palms, repeating, “Christina, my Christina, why won’t you open the window?”

Looking up, you gesture between me and the Puerto Rican man, asking: are you Christina? I shake my head and make walking motions with my fingers to say I’ll come down. Not knowing quite why, you put your hands in your pockets and wait.

When I get down to street level, you’re shocked to see it wasn’t an illusion: my hair really is made of feathers. They’re bright blue, such a vivid color that it’s obvious they weren’t plucked from any real bird. They remind you of the ones you and your sister decorated carnival masks with when you were children: feathers dyed to match the way people think birds look.

You reach out to touch them before your sense of propriety kicks in and pulls your hand back. You shuffle your feet with embarrassment. “Hi.”

I find your shyness endearing. I take one hand out of the lined pocket of my ski jacket and wave.

“I’m Patrick,” you say.

I smile and nod, the way people do when they hear information they don’t find relevant.

“What’s your name?” you ask.

I step closer. You tilt your ear toward my lips, assuming I want to whisper. It’s a reasonable assumption, though wrong. I take your chin and gently lift your face so that your gaze is level with mine, and then open my mouth to show you where my tongue was cut out.

You back away. Another second and you’d bolt, so I act fast, pull a card out of my pocket and give it to you.

“Voluntary surgery?” you read. “What are you, part of some cult?”

It’s more a philosophy than a cult, but since it isn’t really either, I wave my hand back and forth: in a way.

Debate wavers in your expression. You still might go. Before you can decide, I take your hand and pull your fingers through my hair.

You breathe hard as your fingertips touch skin beneath my feathers. “All the way to the scalp,” you murmur. That’s when I know I’ve got you. I can see it in the way your eyes turn one dark color from pupil to iris. You’re thinking, how can this be real?

The fantasy has been with you since adolescence. Maybe it started with the feathers you and your sister glued on the carnival masks. They felt so soft that you pocketed a pair — one blue, one white — and took them back to bed with you. Your vision of a bird-woman appeared soon thereafter. Beautiful and silent, she wrapped you nightly in sky-colored feathers that smelled like wind.

In the nearby park, I recreate this. Behind us, a levy of black rocks stands against the East River. Reflected Manhattan lights form a sheen on the water, shimmering like a fluorescent oil spill.

I strip off my clothes and stand naked for you, my shadow falling onto gravel cut with glints of glass. I’m skinny with visible ribs, but soft and fleshy around the belly where you like to stroke your lovers as if they were satin pillows — all the conflicting traits you prefer, combined in one body. Your eyes never leave my feathers.

You will never know how I am possible. My philosophy — my cult, as you called it — is old and secretive. We have no organization, no books of dogma, no advocates to harangue passersby with our rhetoric. Each initiate finds us alone, deducing our beliefs through meditation and self-reflection. Only the magic of our sacrificed tongues unifies us.

Our practices have few analogues in Western thought, though you could call us philosophical cousins to the Buddhists. We believe there is no way to lose the trappings of self so completely as to become someone else’s desire.

If you see me again, I will not be a bird. I will be a figure made of jewels or a woolly primate with prehensile lips. My skin will be rubber. My cock will be velvet. Each of my six blood-spattered breasts will be tattooed with the face of a man I’ve killed. The goal is endless transformation.

I’m still distant from that goal. Though I’ve been transforming for decades, I’m only inching along the path to self-dissolution. I cling to identity; indulge fantasies like this one of telling you my story. Cutting out our tongues is supposed to silence us. Instead, I speak internally. Can you hear me?

I tease you with my feathers, encompassing your face, hands, and cock in turn. When you tire of that, you pull me up against the rocks with my legs around your waist. I throw my head back to let my plumage stream in the wind and you come. I don’t know if you think of Elka, but don’t worry. You can’t be unfaithful with a fantasy.

You recline against the black rocks. “Wow,” you say, “I’m not the kind of person that would ever do this. Elka and I were together three months before…”

Your eyes glaze. This could be bad. There are two possibilities now. You may pull back, stammering her name, or:

You reach for my shoulder. “I know you can’t talk, but can you write? Is there someplace we could go? I have so much to ask.”

I’ve done my job too well. It’s time to leave. I shrug away from your grip and raise one hand to wave. Goodbye.

“Hey, wait!” you shout.

In your fantasies, when you’re done, the bird-woman dissolves into a shower of feathers. Unfortunately, my magic isn’t that versatile. I have to walk away.

You try to chase me so I maneuver through sharp turns and unexpected byways. You don’t know this area as well as you think you do. Soon, your footsteps grow distant and faint.

I retreat to my rooftop and watch from above as you pace in circles around the neighborhood. I hope you will go soon. If you don’t, it may be a sign I’ve done you permanent damage. Finally, you head back to the subway. I have to admit, I’m a little sad when you go. A little jealous, too.

I climb down the building and discover the Puerto Rican man huddled next to a fire escape, muttering in soft Spanish. Tiny cuts bleed on his arms and calves. I consider remaking myself for him, but all he wants is his human Christina. I catch an impression of her: short and blonde, she hates dancing, speaks seven languages badly, calls him The Man She Should Have Loved Less.

As his yearning for this specific, clumsy, jovial woman flows through me, I realize how little I am to you. What is a fantasy? A scrap of yourself made into flesh. An illusion to masturbate with.

Moving away from the Puerto Rican man, I shelter in a doorway and will myself to molt. My feathers float away on the wind and something I was clinging to flies away with them, carried on the same breeze.

I say goodbye to the girl with feathered hair and wait for another’s desire to overtake and shape me. In the few seconds before it does, for one moment, just one, my soul becomes pure essence without form.

It’s the closest I’ve come to nothingness yet.


Rachel Swirsky is a fiction M.F.A. student at the Iowa Writers Workshop and a 2005 graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop. Her stories have appeared in publications and anthologies including Interzone, Subterranean, and Fantasy: The Best of the Year 2007.

“Renovations”

Friday, January 9th, 2009

RENOVATIONS
by Matthew Pridham

copyright © 2008 / May not be reproduced without permission

(from Weird Tales #348, Jan/Feb 2008)

[ Read this story as a PDF ]

illustration by Daniele Serra

We are lonely, so lonely.

We have been alone here with our sorrows for such a long time.

One hundred years have passed since last we spoke to a neighbor, and then only to fight. Surprisingly, the nights have not been the most difficult times to endure. In the darkness, the world herself seems forlorn: insects chitter and chirp at their solitude, every leaf dragged to friendless fates by a wind blowing nowhere, the moon shines down on the unconscious. No, during the night we can pretend silence is the most natural state.

In the shadows we can even play at dreaming.

It is only when daylight first licks at our lawns, when our askew doors light up with merciless day, it is only then that the sadness overwhelms our pretensions of normalcy and we remember we are alone. No matter the strength of our dreams, they are as easily shattered by morning as our windows have been by rocks and bottles.

Sometimes we forget there are others, that beyond the row of gnarled trees that border our land there are those with whom we used to speak. We sense them even now in our isolation, strong and healthy and brimming with all sorts of life. There are new presences too, creatures such as us yet so young and vibrant they’ve hardly had time to awaken. Imagining their impudent and lazy ways brings us some of the only joys we experience anymore. These musings, though, soon lead to anguish, to bitterness.

We can only cherish whatever has been left of our body by the petty cruelties of time, examining with fading pride our sturdy stairs, a hallway spared of debris by fortuitous placement, perhaps a wardrobe here with a working door, maybe a couch there with fewer stains than it might have had. We can barely pretend that this solitude is a splendid one, that it has brought dignity to our frame, that the others could only wish for this degree of peace.

These fantasies, too, rot and crumble under the weight of our pain. We did not choose this desertion: we are shunned. When memories of us stir, fear chokes them back into intentional amnesia. The young whom we sense on every side of our borders whisper of us as diseased in titillated tones. The old, our friends from our own youth, the old pretend we burnt to cinders long ago and if they ever speak of us, it is with that sorrowful disdain one has for those who have brought about their own destruction. There was a time when we hoped for rejuvenation, when we cried to those friends and said “Don’t forget us,” and “We are so, so lonely.” But the cries of the hopeless can only inspire pity, then dread, and finally anger in those with no recourse to help. Soon they blocked out our lamentations.

Still, for twenty, perhaps fifty years, we cried and moaned, sending out reports every night of our dissipation and the growth of that thing behind the pale blue door. Before we learned how to dream, the darkness was the worst: the horrors of that night, that last vivid and glowing evening before we lost her, before the nightmare blossomed in us, this was all we could remember. We discovered the others had heard our pleas one winter night when a crowd of vandals gathered at the path to our face. Their axes, torches, mallets stirred terror to our foundation, but all the fear in the forest was nothing beside the pain of betrayal. These stern, two-legged animals with their childish comprehensions and absurd rage were not here of their own accord. They were messengers from our old friends: they were the message themselves. They were telling us we were on our own now, we were a threat to the others.

What were we to do? Though the emptiness facing us was so crippling we did consider allowing the creatures to end our pain, to cut us to splinters, to shred and burn, to salt our grounds — in the end, hope, ill founded as it might prove to be, won through. One day we would shine again, one day the others would accept us back. We pitied these messengers, knew our friends had played cruel and frightening games in order to manipulate their wards into such frenzy, but we also knew we would not allow them one step through our doors. Therefore, we did the only thing in our power; we let that cancer, that foulness, issue forth of itself from the room in which it is bound. In grotesque caricature of beastly birth, it coalesced part of itself and squeezed this putridity through the opened door. That what crawled out could live far from its hideous parent was doubtful: it staggered helplessly through our halls, screeching with something like pain the entire time. Once through our mouth, it began to fall to pieces, but not before disseminating its pollen.

It was only a moment by our reckoning, perhaps an hour, but that was all the time that filthy thing needed to save our precious walls. We heard screams, tasted the blood that spilled on our lawns as the vandals were infected, as they turned on one another. We felt the sparks released by agony, mutilation and messy animal death, like static flickering from dry carpets. We averted our vision, though, focusing our eyes instead on the frosted moon and wishing everything would be done with, for we shared in the suffering, we grieved at the nightmare we had unleashed.

When it was over, we once more sealed that horrid little room on our second floor. Oh, that we could then (or now) have drawn it from our body, cut its tendrils loose and flung it into the forest. If only it had flesh capable of being grasped, razed . . . If we were cleansed of its blight we could live again and not be hated. But once again, our hopes overtake our reason.

After that night, we have been alone. The others drew home whichever of their wounded inhabitants had managed to survive and quietly soothed their trauma into forgetfulness. One of the vandals (a large and rude creature who had accepted the cancerous pollen like a gift) took the blame for the entire misadventure and was dismembered in the forest by an enraged cluster of survivors.

All this haunts us still, more than a century later, but something worse happened that chilly night. The thing, our shame and our corruption, fed. We had not foreseen this. It did not reach beyond the pale blue door that marks its bounds; indeed, we have it more securely contained than ever before. It did not spread further within our body, either. However, it did grow stronger, more compact somehow, as if it too can be refurbished, made sturdier.

More disturbing than this, our vision no longer can intrude on its domain. That tiny, nasty blue room has been excised as neatly from our comprehension as it would have had it never existed in the first place. We dwell on it far too often now, worrying ourself over this piece of our body rendered alien and experiencing unknown mutations.

How much longer that door can remain shut, we try not to consider, instead yearning for the past, caressing our shambling dreams, committed to the palliative of willful amnesia.

* * *

One night, as we lie in the rain and feel dampness trickle through cracks and fissures in our body, we are suddenly aware of a new presence at our borders. Have the others remembered us and after so long decided to carry through on the threat they levied? We groan, a chorus of creaks, snaps, and rustles barely audible above the rush of the downpour. Rodents stir in our lower reaches as our fear whispers to them. In their tiny, fuming skulls, images form of the front lawn, of the driveway and the being that slowly crawls in our direction. The rats, which for the sake of shelter and some hazy understanding of our capabilities have always refrained from gnawing at us too horribly, are the closest we have to inhabitants. Other things squirm down our hallways, mate and nest beneath our moldy floorboards; entire kingdoms of flora, fauna and phantasm creep throughout our hollow spaces, but the rodents are the only with which we can even begin to speak. We can forcibly direct worms and spiders to our bidding, but they are clumsy tools and little more. However, from those mangy mammals in our cellar, from their vigorous and pain-filled lives, we can draw a warmth. Not the plentitude of health and joy, which larger beasts bring with their own dreams and sorrows, though. This is a humble repast, the most meager of companionship, but in our solitude what other choice have we?

We impress upon these dear creatures the image of a shape with glowing eyes sliding up our driveway. The screeching multitudes in our cellar understand this better than us. It is a carriage similar to those that used to draw up before us in ages long ago; it is a vehicle and it brings vandals. This is all the rodents can convey, their terror and spite for indwellers tangible in the pungent sweats which squeeze from the flesh. Can they be trusted in their judgments, as honest as they are?

The carriage stops a ways from our face and its burning eyes blink out, yet no one creeps from its frame. As we have aged, we have stood witness to countless cycles of death and reconstruction, we have watched the forest grow and shrink; we, in years sorely missed, once over-brimmed with dwellers and knew them as far as any can know the ways of beast. Much did we learn of their structures, of their tendencies. Vandals, we think, come in two varieties: those who scream and storm and do not hide the violence they bring, and those who sneak, termitian, concealing their presence until the damage is irrevocable.

These vandals follow neither course. Eventually they do unfold themselves from the quieted carriage, they stretch and shake out the stiffness in their little bodies, but they do nothing in haste or in secret. They hide from us in our own shadows until a bolt from the clogged sky overhead gives a second of illumination. We watch them move around, opening compartments in their vehicle, pulling strange shapes from it.

There are five of these creatures, sleek and soft seeming. They chatter as they empty their sleeping carriage. We recall the sounds of those limited to the speech of tongues, we recall the grating noise of anger, of cruel glee, but we cannot discern malevolence in this animal prattle of theirs, only camaraderie and the faintest whiff of fear. They crunch back and forth from their vehicle to the pathway that leads to our face. One of them, large and clumsy, slips and falls into a puddle of rainwater. He barks and whinnies in a wholesome way, and when two of the others join in with their own noises, these high-pitched hiccups, we recall laughter. What a pleasant sound! We always loved it. How much that foul thing has stolen from us . . .

The oldest of the five does not share in this amusement. This creature, a female as straight and thin as the healthiest of our banister poles, growls at the others, apparently conveying her feelings as succinctly to them as she does to us, for now they are once more unloading supplies, and now soundlessly. This female disturbs us on some level: is she a general, an enemy poised to destroy us? From as far away as she is, we can only make out a stiff door on her set against the smiles of the others, set against our dark beauty when she chances to turn towards us. How we yearn for her to be close enough to our dripping body for her intentions to be clearer, how we fear her drawing that near!

Soon, they have dragged their bulky containers across the driveway and onto our porch and we see they are going to enter us. There is no question they are merely passing by, have mistakenly broken our loneliness. They have sought us: we can smell as much in the small puffs that issue from their mouths. We can sense satisfaction beating in soft, fleshly hearts simultaneously occupied with anxiety. Ages ago, we experienced this draw, this love of the fragile little dwellers and the comfort that surged through them when they came home to us. Ages ago we lived for this, the chief pleasure amongst all those which stream from the Great House. It is only now, bathed in the raw admixture of their worry and their hope, that we see they are not vandals, they are guests.

The older female still brings shivers to our foundations but it is not she who steps forward to touch our mouth. A young male, shorter and less cumbersome than the

one who fell, is the first to make contact. Friendliness, we sense, and a pleasantly dull-witted mind behind it. Decades have passed since last we had a true dweller and joy fills us immediately, but there is a dissonance, an alien quality to the touch, to the smile he directs at our front doors. Our pleasure teeters precariously until we see what is so odd about his manner: the boy thinks he is communing with us! Not in the warmth and vitality he spreads throughout our aching, lonely frame with a simple touch, no, he believes he has attained our level of conversation. In fact, we distinctly suspect that the next garbled chattering he lets out is aimed at us, as if in response to some query which we most certainly have not put to such a silly little animal.

The oldest, obviously the leader of their pack, nods her stiff face and indicates approval while behind her a younger female hides a giggle. We are trying to sort out our confused impressions when the storm lets out a violent crash. The creatures shudder as one and the large male almost falls off our porch and into the tangled remains of a flowerbed. He would not laugh were he caught in those thorns, and we are anxious to bring him and the rest into our safety.

As the others calm themselves and their leader pulls something long and heavy from a sack, we open our mouth. The laughter, which had started again, now trails off as each sees the doors yawn so wide. “Welcome,” we try nudging the concept into their thin-shelled heads, but these creatures are foreign to us. Are our sweet words so cold in their ears that they cause shivers, or is it only the rain and the wind?

The man who thinks he speaks with us may indeed have some dim understanding, for his speech turns soothing and firm and he steps into our body. Gradually, the others enter as well until only their leader remains in the rain. Radiating such distrust, such distaste, she stares at our upper reaches and she makes us wince in tones of creaking wood. Then she too is inside and someone closes our mouth.

The dark bundles they brought from their carriage are huddled together on the porch where they’ve been left, looking stiff and unnatural and forlorn. For a moment, we enjoy the sensations of indwellers before turning our vision within. We feel the rain cascade down our roofs and into all those crevices and for the first time in ages, we are not so lonely. The only thing that tempers our joy is the trepidation in the eyes, the limbs, the hearts of our guests. What could draw them to us and yet set them so nervous? Is not our body grand and comforting to look at, are not even the drafts drifting through our hallways scented with mystery, with sweetness? Do we not still offer the promise of home?

There is a darkness, of course, to which we could attribute this tension, but is foul to think of and rather well contained. Surely, these little ones cannot feel its rot so far from its prison. Surely, they cannot know our reputation . . .

* * *

There is much to do, so many preparations to make for our unexpected guests, that we are stunned for a moment. The sudden relief of our loneliness tosses us into disorientation: we cannot think what to do except listen to their excited babble. When our vision finally searches them out, they are in our entrance hall, stamping their feet and shaking rain from the slick skins they wear.

Our floorboards drink in the moisture, throb with pleasure at the touch of their boots.

The young male looks into one of our eyes, combs the fur on his head with his tiny paws and nods at us. The young female pulls the black covering from another male, a smiling creature with smooth features and an excitable mind. We are unhappy to see the old female’s features better, for she grimaces and snarls without end. She examines the hall with an unpleasant thoroughness that makes us wish we could withdraw our surfaces, wood, iron, clay and glass from her glare. Finished and, from the look she gives our dusty green carpet, displeased, she barks at the rotund male and the two of them step onto the porch to retrieve their bundles.

This burst of activity reminds us of our own duties and, keeping a few eyes trained on our visitors, we direct the bulk of our attention elsewhere in our frame. As quietly as possible (no need to frighten off our guests, now!) we set about cleaning the debris of more than one hundred and fifty years. Over the confused clamor of spiders, we suck webs into cracks and deep into our walls. The rodents generally tend to the disposal of their dead yet a few moldering remains are splayed before a pale blue door in the west wing of our second floor. Without so much as prodding our awareness at that forsaken little room, we dispose of the carcasses by absorbing their liquid forms into the grain of wood. We will not consider the Thing behind the door. We have let it drown our joys for too long already.

As we clean ourself, we reflect, for the first time in half a century, on how we have let our isolation abridge our hygiene. To think how hard we have tried to lure random strays who have stumbled through the forest, how we have sent out lulling welcomes in order to draw them into us . . . The reception that would have awaited them! So much dust, so many leaves, all the detritus blown through shattered glass, so many dark and broken dreams crawling semi-visibly across our floors.

One of these things, these hybrids of time and pain, paces to and from a splintered crib a mere three rooms from the hallway our guests occupy. It shuffles soundlessly around the room, all the while drawing a rusty straight razor across its throat. What a thing to leave roaming about! Whatever would our guests think of us if one of them (with our luck: the unpleasant female) stumbled onto this pathetic shade? We inhale it, wishing ruefully we could recall the indweller the image had once belonged to. Surely, the violent detail is an adumbration of our sorrows and nothing more; a dream and nothing more; surely we would remember something that vile if it had actually happened.

When the phantom disappears into the halls of our memory, the razor it carried drops to the floor with a clatter. Back at our entrance, the young female stops her chattering to listen, tilting her head to the side in one of those endearing animal habits we have missed so much. Her smiling male distracts her and soon has her laughing at some verbal buffoonery. We must be more cautious. The anxiety these creatures exude is far more serious than our appearance deserves, but since we cannot force this understanding on them, we must gain their confidences slowly. Moments later, when we discover another phantasm ranging freely (this time a bloated and many legged thing which insists on chewing at dolls in our attic) we absorb it only after ensuring it holds nothing clattersome in its clawed grasp.

What is left of our more genteel decorations could hardly furnish a smaller body but we make efforts similar to those previous dwellers used to do. Four chairs slide soundlessly across the dining room floor to a battered table. After some hesitation, we tug a crumbling love seat to join them. The large one will need more seating space. Melted wax reheats under the intensity of our will and reshapes into candles with wicks we unravel from frayed curtains. There is not much we can do with the odors of rot, neglect and agony that stain our walls. We know this but try anyway, fluttering the pages of ancient and unreadable books left lying throughout our magnificent spread. The subtle aroma of paper may not be obvious to these loud guests of ours, but we vaguely remember the sensation as having been sweet to at least one previous indweller.

The rest of our work takes so little attention we can easily shift back to the hall. Finding it empty of inhabitants, we panic momentarily, then realize they have begun to explore us more thoroughly. The large one, the grinning male and the female who grips his paw have entered our first floor study. Apparently pleased with the fireplace there, the smiling one babbles in such a way we understand he wishes to light it. The female ignores him and runs gentle fingers across a wall, bringing thrills to paneling long numb. Our bulky new guest chirps in a surprisingly high-pitched tone while gesturing around himself. It is so hard at times, not understanding these soft animals and their animal barking. We had forgotten that in our yearning for past intimacies. Yet discerning the words of his speech is unnecessary for we can feel his glow, a radiance of serenity, roving curiosity and something akin to knowledge.

We are so forgetful we spend several minutes admiring this scene, even pretending we can comprehend the specifics of their communication before we recall that older female and the serious male who thinks he can fathom us.

These two have not strayed far. Imagine, they stand in that ruined crib room we’ve erased a dream from only moments ago. It has not returned from the depths of our being (although we sense something else stirring in an upstairs closet) but the razor, caked with brittle red rust, has caught the female’s gaze. She picks it up warily, as if it had the volition to slice into her on its own. These guests of ours can be quite nervous. We shall have to think of some display of our burgeoning affection that would calm them.

The leader holds the blade out to the male yet he does not touch it, only frowns and shuts his windows. A soft stab of presence reaches from his mind, groping blindly across the room. This display fascinates us and we feel a touch (ever so light) draw across our mind and have to refrain from returning the favor. It would be too much for him, we realize; we must move gently. This thread of awareness continues to spool from his forehead (we think of our tiny spiders and the delicate webs they spin) and his partner peers around suspiciously, presumably blind to his abilities. His searching probe has passed through the ceiling but our focus remains on her.

She jerks in surprise when the other moves unexpectedly. He gestures, he whispers, but fiercely. We do not like this tone, for it is low and fearful. Has he stumbled across one of our rogue dreams? We would be so embarrassed! A quick examination of our body shows evidence of none roaming, just a fungoid limb kicking about in that upstairs closet (not a dream, really, but an obnoxious outgrowth of one). So what has him agitated? He points upward and at an angle and after a moment of worrying he has perceived some flaw in the ceiling we have missed, an infection of hateful termites, perhaps, we see he is gesturing in the direction of the room with the pale blue door, that room which is ours no longer.

We twitch in discomfort and doors slam themselves shut throughout our body, lights form, flicker and change colors. In a spasm of uncontrolled panic, we release a dozen muttering phantasms which converge around the pale blue door, converge but do not pass through, gathering instead to flutter at it, to stare with horror, awe, even glee at the one cramped space they may not explore. Then we regain our composure and the dreams are erased with a single, mighty impulse. The furniture we overturned in our regretful fugue is up-righted and our lamps brought back to a glow more conducive to the sights of our guests. We calm ourself, straighten and relax our arrangements and turn back to our guests.

Back in the study, the large male gasps, pointing at a wallpaper relief of which we are rather fond. We are too embarrassed even to consider what nightmare tableaux he might have seen enacted on our walls. He is indeed frowning and growling and hopping about as if playing the different roles he saw form in the tangled green jungle of the wallpaper. The young female and her mate, neither smiling now, stare intently and we know they too sensed a shift in the warm comfortable ambiance. We must do something to break this tension, to relax our guests before they work themselves into a terrified lather and run shrieking into the night and rain, leaving us alone again. It takes a second of consideration, we must align the study’s carpets and a single, moldy pillow that has earlier fallen to the floor, and we have our solution. The large one is jerking about, no doubt making his vision far more grotesque sounding than it could have been, and it takes only the slightest tug at the carpet he stands on to throw off his balance. As we have planned, he does not fall headfirst onto any sharp corners, nor does he plunge against (or through) a nearby window, but instead slips backwards, his rear end (already quite padded) landing snugly on the pillow we drew into position. There is a pause as his mouth falls open in shock, as the other male makes a noise of surprise and the female’s eyes widen, and we wonder if we have not actually added to the ominous mood of the room. Then the large male begins that whinnying laughter of his again and the other two, seeing he is unhurt, join in, soon overtaking his hilarity with their own.

With the breath of a hundred dusty air vents we sigh our relief and leave them. Back in the crib room, the old female and her gifted pupil have recovered from whatever distress our convolution gave them and are whispering again. We do not like the way they stare upwards, nor does the female’s crooked and knowing smile give us cause for confidence. She folds the rusty razor still in her grasp and pockets it, pats the pocket, as if reassuring it of its new home.

* * *

Our guests sleep securely tonight, or so the sweet aroma of their dreams suggest. They have chosen two rooms, both on our first floor. The young female and her cheerful friend, after exaggerated yawns and non-verbal signs even we can interpret, moved into a guest bedroom with wide, unbroken eyes against which the rain slaps with tickling sensations. The two spread their own blankets on our floorboards, mildly offending us with their implied rejection of the massive bed which occupies the room. And after we went through the trouble of shooing away the pack of rats that had made it their home! With much giggling, with many whispers, these two set into that animalistic wrestling match we so enjoy watching. Had we bestial flesh, this would be our first use of it. They seem to care little about the noise of their joy, unlike previous indwellers, but the storm is loud and their friends are rooms away.

With rumbles and unconscious growls, the hefty male sleeps in the corner of the study, as the other two sit at a table and chatter quietly. From one of the containers they’ve brought with them, they extract shiny boxes with cyclopic glass eyes. They consult these with intense concentration but we cannot divine their meaning and soon our attention wanders. Once, when one of our dreams wriggles loose and runs, light-footed and trailing viscous fluids, across the second floor room above that study, one of these metallic contrivances emits a chirp. We corral our wayward apparition and return our gaze to the study but the male and female have joined the large one in his slumber, their heads resting on the table they sit at. The noise of their device does not wake them.

* * *

Today, our guests explore our body.

We tingle with anticipation in those rooms not already afire with the presence of this new life. We do not mind the poking, prodding, uncovering and stroking which these tiny creatures bring us, do not mind and actually welcome it (although we would appreciate a bit more care in the way they track mud in on our floors). It still rains outside and this, perhaps, dissuades any desires to explore our lawns, our overgrown and forgotten gardens or the forest, which naps nearby. The guests go outside, pulling even more mysterious bundles from their carriage.

Our rodents rustle uneasily in our bowels as they sense this potential intrusion on their world, but we comfort them as best we can, filling their tiny skulls with feelings of snug contentedness, with visions of untrammeled peace and endless supplies of grain. Once, when the constantly cheerful male attempts opening one of our cellar doors, we secure it firmly, releasing a drooling dream to stand on the other side and obstruct his pushing. The furrier mammals ease in their discomfort when they see the sincerity of our promise.

If only our guests trusted us as much! They enjoy themselves, it is true; they murmur to one another over the faded grandeur of our accoutrements, over the fair and well-paneled structure of our cavities, of those rooms through which they wander. Yet there remains a mistrust in all their ways. The young female does not enjoy a painting that hangs in our dining room. It is a grim portrait, to be honest, of one of our less amicable dwellers, but still only an image. This figure can no longer maim or molest, regardless of his painter’s virtuosity. She frowns at it, scribbles in a pad and moves on.

The youngest male, he with the dimwitted yet undeniable understanding of our ways, disappoints us with his suspicion. He is the first to broach our second floor but spends more time studying the tracks our dreams have left in the dust than in appreciating the symmetry of our layout. He follows one of these trails into our magnificent “master” bedroom, where so many indwellers have spent their lives, where a few have bid goodbye to them as well. This young explorer ignores our gaping fireplace, saunters past a canopied bed that could (and has before) comfortably suit four companions, and gives not a glimpse at the bulky and black lacquered wardrobe in the corner. This last negligence we are grateful for: we do not think he would enjoy seeing the crusted and jelly-like growth that seethes inside.

Instead, our incurious friend follows dusty tracks to the glass doors that lead out onto one of our balconies. He shakes his head before pulling at the doors and stepping outside. We, of course, cannot, but keep our sight on him as he walks onto our exterior.

What goes through his innocent, animal mind as he stands there, staring at our grounds? We sense that relentless probing of his, but what does he search for? He and his group, they examine us as no others have. We know it is no over-exaggeration to say they study us, but why? The possibility occurs to us that they may be here for the same reason our old friends shun us. What does this thoughtful creature see in our structure that compels such fascination where others are repulsed? Why do his companions prod at our secret places yet jump at every creak? We are so intent on these questions that we nearly miss two rather vital happenings.

In the wardrobe, the gelatinous growth has begun to pull at the inner latch, having perhaps mistaken our unspoken questions as a command to extract answers from the guest.

And, if possible even more disastrous, the old female has passed by the “master” bedroom and is making her determined way to the pale blue room at the end of a desolate hall.

It takes a burst of our concentrated will to avert the messy situation which could unfold but the thought of the male being pushed from the balcony or, worse, being pulled into that massive night-black wardrobe by one of our own by-products, that is enough to elicit direct and well-planned action. If the female were to reach the blue door and somehow force it open, well we simply cannot remember what would happen next, but a deep sense of disquiet is set off throughout our walls at the notion. Some darkness lurks therein, there where we can no longer see, and we would rather our guests die than be exposed to whatever it has become.

Our dilemma’s solution, however, turns out to be simple. Just as the female reaches the door and looks at it with some fascination and the growth has eased the wardrobe open and begun to slither out, we invade the body of the creature and send it slopping out the bedroom door, around a bend in the hallway and into a darkened bedroom. The leader (as we knew she would) turns to see what liquid thing moves behind her and catches only a glimpse of reflectant vermillion slipping into shade. The male looks up at the noise that the growth made fleeing the bedroom, but does not see much more. With more curiosity than fear in her voice, the female calls out to the others and moves cautiously toward the growth’s hiding place, the pale blue door completely forgotten now. When the young male comes running around the corner, they startle, then begin babbling at one another.

This does not concern us. That wriggling mass which we were forced to puppeteer is busily crawling through an air duct and into the safety of our nooks and crannies. We shall not let light interfere until the creature squirms into hiding, and when the leader pulls at a lamp cord just inside the room, she is answered by a mocking click. With what they have just (almost) seen, neither of our guests will be venturing into one of our hollows as dark as this.

No, all that worries us now is that she may recall her previous destination. Controlling the thing in the wardrobe has drained us of energy, sapped the strength that the mere presence of guests has reintroduced to us. We are exhausted, from our buried foundations to the attic roof that juts so finely toward the sky. There will be the requisite time, minutes or hours, and we will have our vigor back. Were she to walk back down that hallway and fling open the door, we could only watch, helpless and hopeless. We watch and tense with an anticipation which makes our windows rattle, and then the others arrive from downstairs, curious and loud, and she leads them back down presumably to retrieve one of the portable lamps we have seen them unpack. The rest of them squawk at one another and are quite involved in their plans, but she, she is distracted and frowning at herself, perhaps wondering what she was so intent on before we interrupted her.

* * *

Curiously, the incident with our gelatinous dream seems to have abridged our guests’s exploratory zest. They huddle in our study, warming their soft bodies and the synthetic fabrics they wear by a fire the cheerful male has lit. They whisper to one another and nudge meaningfully. The young male says things that he at least finds important, but we suspect they are ignoring him. Oh, why do we care what arguments they involve themselves in or whether their leader even appreciates us at all? We are not lonely for the first time in ages.

The dwellers of our memory used to bring guests in herds, they would feed, chatter, gyrate their tiny bodies across our floors to the cacophony of some band of noisemakers. All the emotions they poured out, the bursts of energy we derived from their pleasure, their fights, and fleshy wrestling that commenced in our rooms, our attic, even our cellars . . . We remember that final evening: everything shined brighter, pulsed louder, everything spun and whirled deliriously until that shrieking messy end. Some aspect was different in those days, we lacked some agency, but the niceties of our cognitive prowess pale when held against the thrill, the innocent anticipation in which we swam. We lacked no strength then, although we have spent decades trying to recall what we did with it. Maybe we should hold a festival, release our dreams, let them run free throughout our body with the dictum to be joyous so that their phantasmal shapes will not bring fear. After all, who could fear one of our shades, if it were laughing and chattering? Some in the group lack mates. They could find suitable partners amongst the dreams! We will adjust the lamps to proper levels, as a certain duskiness, particularly red tones, seems to excite the social instincts of beasts. We will call crickets to chirp, rodents will fill our walls with scampering and squeaking. We will join in, creaking, cracking. Our revelry will go uninterrupted. Oh, we will consult with them on such questions as have stirred in the halls of our soul for so long, leaking visions directly into their sweet skulls, lapping up whatever insights that arise. They will stay! They will love our comforts and dwell within us forever.

We watch our guests eat and consider our plan from every angle. There is something off in this idea, some consideration to be made, but problems will always arise and a superior hostel easily transcends them when they do.

A certain ambiance (the word coziness suggests itself) settles over us all, animal and sentient alike. The oafish male, for reasons which baffle us and frankly suggest the enormous divide between our species and theirs, has not sat in the oversized sofa we dragged to the kitchen for his use, having chosen instead one of the more unsteady wooden chairs. The poor construct creaks and strains beneath him. We simultaneously worry over the damage he will do himself if it were to collapse, as well as anticipate the hilarity that would ensue. While we try to prepare how to save him (and all we can do, in the end, is invest the chair with the dregs of our drained strength) we reflect on how we have missed these domestic dramas. We try to recall what was so different in the days of our youth.

Their frowning leader occupies the sofa like an ill-tempered and domineering hostess and as she finishes the meal they have presented her with, she begins to speak in a slow and, for this species, somber manner. She continues over angry sounding interjections from the young male until the other three are nodding, the grinning male now with a hesitant flicker about his lips. Something has been decided, we know, and for an instant in which we fear we are going to be abandoned, we lock every door to our exterior, we seal our eyes against shattering, we ready a dozen anemic dreams to herd our wayward guests into dark rooms where they can be subdued until realizing how lovely it would be to stay with us. Then, with an embarrassment we are sure even they can feel, we see how such behavior might be misconstrued as ungracious. Sheepishly, we snap back the locks and release the windows from our fevered grasp, thankful none of them heard a sound.

If they wish to leave us, we will let them with the fondest of memories. That would bring them back one day, that and not any rude lock-in we could impose. We sorrow at these thoughts, it is true, and we would rather lose our west wing than be delivered back to solitude, but we refuse to let our despairs get the better of our civility.

Something thuds that moment against the interior of that lost little room on our second floor. We cannot see inside but we feel a pressure build against the pale blue door. It takes all our effort to restrain it from flying open but we do and soon it quiets. We are calm, we are collected, and we suddenly see we have not seriously considered the dangers posed to our guests by whatever lurks behind that door. Guilt pulses through our sturdy body in a corrosive wave akin to a swarm of loathed termites. It takes the rest of our willpower not to flap our doors in anxiety, to rattle every window until it explodes. This inner turmoil is stunned into silence when, by some primitive understanding we have gained over ages of studying this species, we know what the young male is trying to communicate to his pack.

He motions towards our mouth.

He is not angry anymore, he is afraid.

He wishes to leave, to repack the bundles they have brought with them and scatter into the night and storm we protect them from.

He fears us.

With a pained look, the older female rises from the chair that engulfs her bony frame and shakes her head fiercely. It appears we have looked upon her unfairly. For all the animal grimaces and squints and other expressions of distaste she has lavished upon our dark walls, she is the one who wishes to stay with us. There in our dusty kitchen, in the light that reflects so mercilessly off the white tile, rendering our poor guests the ashen color of their dead, she stands firm. The male who smiles so often is, of course, he who breaks the tension. He laughs and nods to his young companion. He leans back against his chair and looks quite ready to stay. With a grunt, the heavy male seems to agree to this, and after minor struggle, leaves his tortured seat to prepare more food.

Apparently, only the younger female vacillates in her decision. That one whom we thought communed with us, that one who wants to desert our humble embrace, mumbles and growls at her, as if compelled to convince her but aware he cannot succeed. She bites at the soft flesh around her mouth and chews lightly until giving the other a sad look.

Violently, he shoves his chair across our mud-tracked floors and leaves the room. She moves to follow him and doubt twists the features of her tiny face, but the laughing male, her wrestling partner, catches her. After some of his amiable chatter and a few hushed words that seem to tickle her ear, she sits back and joins in on the group’s renewed palaver.

The leader of the pack is impatient and her pacing, her droning voice, bore us so we glide our awareness softly through our halls to find our unwilling guest.

He stands in the first floor study, groping at his garments. When he finally withdraws a small paper box, we realize he is not packing to leave. We follow him to the edge of our front porch where he ignites a tiny tube from the box, surely a poor cousin to the fat, noxious-fumed objects with which so many past dwellers have stunk up our body. It is a shame he has chosen such a lazy response to his rejection. Though we wish no harm on these guests of ours, we still enjoy the friction they build between one another. It is one of the few pleasures we can experience in our long, lumbering passivity. We sit and breathe, wood settling with audible relief, but these creatures are so full of movement. They sprint and walk and crawl through our body. They laugh, speak, moan, scream, the sounds echoing fruitfully off our silent walls. They act for us and these dramas that unfold between them are in no small part that engine which gives us life.

He steps away from the shelter of our porch-boards, into the biting wind. He holds his smoking tube in a cupped grip and stares at the night. He flicks it away, and after it hisses out in a wet pile of leaves, he turns back to us.

Maybe the storm tires him, maybe he regrets staying with his friends, with us. These are all perfectly sturdy explanations for the unhappy look on his face. After his efforts to push us back into the sorrows of our loneliness, he could not possibly be sad for us.

* * *

When we rejoin the other guests in our kitchen, they have pulled shiny boxes and outré lamps from the bundles with which they arrived. Excitement builds as they arrange these items in patterns and as their leader points them this way and that. What marvelous novelty are we to witness? Some new game to divert their attention from the unpleasantries of the last hour?

They have already set these items throughout our kitchen and into the hallway when their unhappy friend returns from musing in the rain. We note with a small satisfaction that he has cleared his feet of mud before coming back inside. He stands to the side, frowning and refusing to help, and watches with juvenile irritation. If he is not going to enjoy our ambiance then at least he could refrain from ruining the fun of his pack mates.

Thankfully, they ignore him and are soon finished. With that pedantic note which is so amusing in these creatures when they wish to sound wise, the wizened female lectures her group. She walks to a case that she has kept close to her side all evening and after opening it, begins to tap at tiny keys within. The heavy male stops eating to listen to her.

Now finished with her speech, the female smiles for the first time since we have met her. With a brief and rather rude look at the sullen one, she pokes one of the keys in her case. The boxes the group have arrayed begin to hum, silently at first but then in a rapidly growing wave of sound. We are delighted to see the oddly shaped lamps flicker and alight. There is a soothing quality to their color that entrances us like the glow of twilight. Drawn to these lights and the steady buzz from the metal boxes, we hardly notice our guests anymore. How sweet of them, to arrange this display for us. How they must cherish our structure and the wonders it offers them. We bask in this newfound art of theirs and forget our worries in its glories.

The passage of an hour and another . . . We cease paying attention to our guests, as shameful as that is, and we are unsure of when they retire, only seeing, when we manage to tear some vestige of our being from the hum and the glow, that the kitchen is almost empty. The heavy male sits in his study and paws his way through some mildewed book our original dwellers left. The couple have retired to their bedroom, but suddenly the vigorous play in which they indulge themselves does not interest us. Compared to the steady power of the metal instruments, they seem awkward, unsatisfactory. The other female explores our first floor east wing, strolling through lesser bedrooms, examining a small ballroom that overlooks the forest. She nods and chuckles, she scribbles meaninglessly in a book. All in all, she is a far more attentive guest than we have acknowledged. Happy with her polite study of our intricacies, we try stirring some pleasant draft of air toward her, but find ourself unable to summon the energy. Our exertions over the last day must have been more tiresome than we imagined.

In the kitchen, only the male who wishes to desert us remains. He watches over the lights and listens to the ambient thrum from the boxes, yet does not seem to relish it. We settle back into our appreciation of the display and wonder lazily at these beasts. How sweetly absurd they are, that they can create such wonders and completely lack the abilities to enjoy them! The male looks disturbed, in fact, and stares at his leader’s case as if he means to annihilate it with a blast from his squinty windows. We would stop him from that, we muse. We would toss every piece of furniture in his way.

The storm outside has not abated in the least. An unrelenting wind pounds rain against our exterior walls and our eyes run as if we could weep with joy. Lightning strikes the forest; even from our distant vantage point we can smell charred moss and hear the cries of tortured trees. It always disconcerts us more than animal howls, this high-pitched shriek of vegetation. Is it because we share more in common with these unmoving creatures, some kinship of our constituent parts that ally us more closely? Or do these cries disturb us so deeply because we suspect we are the only who can hear them?

Our furry friends in our cellars huddle together against the uproar outside, but when we reach to touch their massed minds, we find a greater terror than any storm could warrant. What do you fear, little ones? Our guests are not here to hurt you, and if they were, how could they breach our defenses?

The young male finally leaves our kitchen after many exaggerated looks and groans. We sigh and settle into further enjoyment. It is time to give our undivided attention.

Only one incident disturbs us during the night. At some point (the glow and that delicious humming seem to have temporarily robbed us of our excellent sense of time, we note wryly) the hungry wind finds leeway into one of our uppermost places, in the balcony onto which the young male stepped earlier. A door begins to flap in the breeze, banging and crashing most awfully. Rain rides, sprinkles our carpet, tattoos the faded designs of the bed’s blanket with cold spots. We are slightly irritated at this excess, for not only can we feel the wet seeping into our woodwork and the wind chilling the room: we fear the noise might be enough to wake our guests. They have done so much for us tonight, we think, and smile upon the boxes, the lamps, their lovely display. They do not need to be awakened by this unseemly business.

When we reach out our will to close that unruly door, for some reason we cannot get proper hold of it. We grapple with the wooden frame, we focus ourself onto those elegantly shaped handles, we fail utterly. This does not panic us, this lack of control. If anything, we are amused. We wrestle with the door, laughing silently at our weakness. We have begun to consider summoning some dream, some heavy quasi-material shape that would be able to shut the door with rudimentary grace, when the older female appears in our bedroom and does it for us. We are momentarily surprised, not having paid much attention to the whereabouts of our guests and unaware she was still awake. She almost spooks us, if such a thing were possible. As we follow her from the room and watch her glance about our hallway as if searching out some forgotten nook, a thrill runs through us. Wood, stone, and glass shift in our involuntary startle. There is a reason we do not want this dear creature wandering here, above all not here in this dark and cramped hallway and especially not alone. There is some fetid atmosphere trapped up here, a diseased growth like a mad notion, and we can sense it reaching out of our murk, groping blindly at this defenseless guest of ours.

We need not worry so, though, as she seems to sense this as well and, with a violent shudder, walks back to a nearby staircase. Soon, she is safely warming herself by the fire, animal exhaustion overwhelming her curious impulses. Sleep, our little one, retreat into whatever darling dreams your tiny awareness permits. Let us return to the display, to the peace it brings, so exquisite it might as well have been tailored to lull us and no one else. Let us forget about your fighting and our long isolation and the confused, ragged memories we have left. Let us forget storms, desertion, burning wood, noisy doors, fretful guests, ungracious impulses, cursed termites, mud, mold, rust, dust, drips, cracks, pale blue doors, hollow places devoid of name . . .

* * *

It is night again; we have lost an event-filled and no doubt dull day. Now, though, some triviality has broken in on our lazy contemplation of the glow and the hum. We have never felt quite like this before, a dazed sensation as if we have been stunned so thoroughly the mental haze has lasted for hours instead of seconds. Our gaze flickers from room to room, picking up only a blurry impression of beds and lamp fixtures, of brilliantly colored tapestries dulled by the years, of carpets across which mold has triumphantly begun its march. We cannot quite focus ourself and the thought rises to us that this is what it must be like for weariness to overcome animals, that this is what sleep is.

We grope around, trying to regain our senses and are angry that we cannot recall where our guests are. Our awareness brushes across some nasty sight in the cellars, but the mangled carcasses that stiffen and begin to rot there on cold stone floors are too tiny to be members of the pack. We recoil in disgust before the scene can take on meaning and are soon clucking disapprovingly over a broken chair in the dining room.

Surprised at our negligence, we search on. That flickering in our kitchen, that low thrum, is beautiful, yes. We feel its tug even now: a call to study it, cherish it, lose ourself in it. Of course we will return after our inspection is over and re-immerse ourself in that majestic rhythm, but momentarily its hold on us disturbs. Look at the disgraceful mess of mud prints our guests have tracked in! And for what possible reason could someone have knocked a hole in one of our walls? We have not been an attentive host during the last day, so we should not expect any better behavior from our little friends. We will clean everything tomorrow, summon up a veritable herd of memories to erase this disorder. Until then, what was that which broke our peace?

We have just turned our awareness toward the study when we see the black ribbons for the first time. Actually, this is when we notice them first, as they have been in sight for minutes now. In our daze, how could we have noticed any one incongruity over another? The miasma that has reached out to us from the metal boxes has also rendered our entire body foreign, disjointed. This is why we did not pay heed any earlier to the ribbons, two billowing strands made of some etheric material that have been somehow stretched through hallways, walls, thick floors and into one of our first floor bedrooms. We hesitate, knowing somehow this may prove to be fatal, but we pause nonetheless, impressed by the nature of these two rippling tendrils. They must be another aspect of our guest’s showmanship, a trick of light or some other application of that animal craftiness which always surprises us. We can see no other way these ribbons could stretch through our solid surfaces like we are so much water. These serpentine ribbons float in the air and are so long we cannot immediately perceive either their place of emanation or of terminus.

We have actually begun to follow the black, mid-air trails in one direction when we realize that the room the other ends pass into is that in which two of our guests sleep. The slightest twinge of discomfort passes through our body (thankfully, oddly, producing no embarrassing side effects which might disturb anyone’s sleep). The ribbons are pretty, yes, and when we have a moment we will enjoy their texture, but must our guests add to what is already a cornucopia of visual delights? What is in the kitchen is sufficient for our entertainment, even a bit much. Now, they activate their darling machines in the bedrooms as well?

We are preparing to shift our gaze to the interior of the bedroom, trying to form a polite but firm way of expressing our discomfort, when that door opens and the grinning male steps out. Well, he was grinning in the past, pleased looking and humorous for most of the three days in which we have known him. That first night we even saw him chuckling in the midst of sleep. Now, however, a vacancy has stolen over his face. Those fleshy lips, the jutting jawbone below, all hang open like the rotten doors of a body abandoned by more than animal presence, his mouth ajar as if he is readying himself for food, opening wide to fit in as much as possible. His paws hang limply by his sides and their digits twitch nervously, yet he walks with serenity and poise. We have seen this behavior before and usually in contexts more benign, this sleep wandering which overtakes some beasts, their restless natures trumping even exhaustion’s decree. We have never seen, though, what is happening to his eyes. The black ribbons attach to them, seem actually to ripple from his skull through lids that, open or closed, we cannot see.

How curious. We try to train our thoughts on this phenomenon, try recalling whether we have seen it manifested in dwellers past and as we ponder, the male walks down the hallway. He seems to be following the ribbons and not the other way around, as if all that flowing, evanescent material is tugging him in its direction, as if he sees something far away, from a dream even, and is being drawn toward it. We cannot recall this behavior, these dark strands, but we can now match an emotion to his facial arrangement: awe.

The creature is utterly fascinated by what he sees in (or beyond) the twisting ribbons. He reaches a staircase and begins to climb it before it occurs to us how silly we have been, not searching out the ribbons destination. As we make a lazy circuitous route through wood and stone, following the strands far faster than the somnambulic male ever could, we yet again upbraid our mental disorders. Our inner rooms and all their chaotic contents have gone so unruly recently. The hum and the glow have disrupted our typically rigorous habits of sensation, they have interrupted (but how beautifully!) our knowledge of ourself.

So immersed are we in these thoughts that when we reach the other end of the black ribbons and bump the head of our awareness against some boundary, we are briefly thrown off course and find ourself staring at dusty trunks in our attic. We sink back down again, chagrinned at our absent-minded ways. There, right below, is the end of the ribbon’s trail or rather the end of our sight of it, for before us those two strands sink deep into and through a door we can no longer move beyond. Those lengths of darkness that flow from the male’s eyes and penetrate our being so effortlessly, they enter the one room we can no longer honestly call a portion of ourself. They pass through a pale, blue door and out of our sight.

Now panic awakens us fully from our torpor. It is a frantic feeling that builds slowly at first, as we wonder what the male could possibly want in that forgotten corner of ours. It is a scrabbling, choking emotion which demands to know what we can do to stop him from doing this, why we cannot summon the flimsiest of dreams to block his way, to shriek and chase and bleed all over him if need be, whatever it would take to break this doomed spell. And finally this panic, this quaking, shaking horror which would have all our doors and windows and lamps and bric-a-brac aflutter were it not for our paralysis, this horror comes into full bloom as the male steps into the other end of the hallway and as he is tugged, still deep inside some fascinating vision, we realize the black ribbons do not stream from his eyes, they end there. Whatever has sent out these silken feelers hides behind the pale blue door the poor beast is gliding toward even now.

We explode internally into a cacophony of fear, pity, guilt. We shove every particle of strength into every stray dream we can find, ordering them to manifest directly in the guest’s path. When we can only manage a flicker, a shadow of an image that could not frighten a rodent, we try to find one of the growths that crawl our air vents. The gelatin thing we used the other day has burrowed into a pile of blood and fur in the cellar and the other beings all hide in remote corners of our body, terrified and utterly resistant to our will. We cannot even flap a door to waken him with the bang. We cannot save him, but then we recall his friends and again, cursing our foolishness, we are gone and headed toward the study as the blue door opens and the helpless creature steps inside.

* * *

Two figures sleep in our study, firelight playing twisted games with their shadows on the walls. The younger male sleeps too deeply for any chance of our emotion communicating itself to him. A sharp stench surrounds him, as well as the hazy, inwardly flowing glow of self-administered sleep and we know somewhere, most likely shattered on one of our floors, is an empty bottle.

His heavy-set friend, however, shakes in his sleep in that pitiful manner of even the lowest souls and as we enter the study, comes out of his dreams with a gasp. We do not dawdle over the notion it is our concentration that has brought him this unrest. We actively try to encourage his terror, aiming a spike of our own fear, pure and as grand as our structure, at that doughy head of his and its tousled, sweaty fur. He takes another sudden breath, this time fully awake, and we know we have made contact. He struggles from his bed, not quickly enough for our mounting anxiety, and moves to shake the other awake. Impatient and curious despite ourself, we move back to the pale blue door.

It has closed after the male’s entrance. From behind it can we hear muffled sounds? Do we truly hear one confused voice murmuring? Is there really a grating, inexpressibly vile squelching in the background? Or is it all part of the same chorus? Our terror for our guests threatens to retreat into sorrow. We cannot allow ourself to lose whatever peace they have brought with them.

We will not let them be taken from us.

A clatter at the end of the hallway and the young female steps into view. What is she doing here? She squints against the shadows our second floor lays shrouded in, she wrinkles her face and calls out, seeking her mate. We throw a pitifully muted wave of warning at her in what her tiny ears must sense as a sessura of sighs, rustling, creaking, yet all it does is draw her further in. She shivers and calls again, this time in a whisper. Silly creature! Our fear is touched with irritation and we must withdraw our focus from her pillow-lined face before she mistakes us for the threat. She walks down the hallway, stopping briefly to peer into the west wing’s master bedroom before continuing to the pale blue door. She tiptoes; she leans carefully against our oak walls and draws the softest touch across us. We wish we could weep at her innocence. We mourn for her and her childish, sneaky gait. All this and more surges through us in the morsel of time which passes before the pale blue door swings open and something walks out.

The female gasps and then, recognizing the silhouette in the doorway, begins chattering angrily. She is not close enough to see more than an outline. That is why she chirps and frowns at the figure and is not shrieking. We are not spared the view. We can see in the bluish darkness of the hallway, we can see the male is smiling once more and so fiercely it has torn the skin at either end of his lips. We can see how he glistens, covered in some flecked and purple-tinged mucus that even now drips from his skull, soaks every inch of his frame. A glow emanates from him, a nasty shade like that which rot exudes. What we wish she could see, wish so that she would run from him, so that she would scream loud enough to wake our benumbed body and allow us to protect her, what we simultaneously wish for and fear will happen at any moment, is that she would see his eyes. Those marbled globes that we have seen wink and squint and glitter with some low form of wit are forever lost to the rot behind the pale blue door. The substitution is worse than the raw holes a scavenger would have left: his windows have been shattered, the jagged remnants outlining a bottomless night within.

For a moment we drift toward the doorway ourself and, fatally curious to see the scene therein, to see what could break a beast’s eyes, are on the verge of looking inside when the female begins to scream. It is a heartbroken and eternally miserable sound and the shuddering breaths in between are so liquid we fear she has burst something, yet it revives hope. She has seen her mate’s deformity so she will run; she will run into the night with the remainder of her pack and leave us once more to silence and our memories but she will live. We will not have to witness their destruction.

Something is wrong, though, when we turn our vision on her. She does not move, only stares at the creature coming at her and shrieks over and over. We drive our own fear at her, we plead her to move, and she merely stands in place and watches this thing approach. Finally, she moves with a jerk just as it reaches her, but she falls forward into its arms. It is too late to save her and we try to find something, anything else, to focus on but we cannot resist watching. The male with the broken eyes says something to her, slow and low and molten, as it pets her head and she, horrifically, stops screaming. The creature pauses and looks about, its smile parting skin further. It sways his head back and forth and then does something so wrong, so foreign to the species of our dwellers, it almost sends us back to our kitchen and the peace of the hum and the glow:

The creature winks, broadly, at us. How we are sure of this, we cannot tell, but whatever curdled mess has seeped into this shell, it is aware of us on a disgustingly high level. It thinks it is one of us. We see all this in the wink and the smile and are prepared to shift our gaze, permanently if need be, to the blissful array downstairs, when the creature reaches down to the soft junction of the female’s legs and with no effort unzips her like it is tearing through the flimsiest of fabrics.

She flaps open, two segments running from her legs to the top of her skull, but the viscera we expect does not burst forth. Instead: delicately patterned pink wallpaper line her insides. She is filled with miniature four-poster beds and pastel colored armchairs. Her organs are, have become, appear to be, carpets and tables and porcelain surfaces. Tiny stuffed toys fall from where a gristly heart should pound and a bookcase topples from her skull. We know this cannot be happening. She has been torn open and the thing with the ripped grin has merely enchanted her innards to look this way. We tell ourself and reel in shock, in pity.

Her paws still flutter at her sides, as if she is trying to close up her body. A keening comes from her split face, a noise horribly doubled, as if coming from two similarly devastated creatures. After another wink and the protrusion of its tongue, the thing turns toward her. It pushes her segmented body against the wall and we think of a bird with two wings, propped and pinned up for study or display. Then it shoves, hard, and a raging pain streaks through us, as if it has torn into us, mutilated our very being. Our numbness invaded, it takes vital seconds before we realize this is what has happened. Our guest’s splayed and still shivering body is being grafted to the wall against which it is held. The creature from behind the blue door holds the dying female as the graft takes hold and scream as we might, it stands firm and grins at us. The boundaries of her body grow, her outline spreads until it engulfs the entire hallway and the stunned bedrooms that branch from it. Her insides creep across this tortured corner of ourself and expand. The sight of her internal furnishings growing (a massive, mauve wardrobe widens with a pop) awakens us with new shock and we hurry our awareness from there, anywhere, before we can see what is changed next.

* * *

Our horror is so profound by this time that we find ourself careening through the nooks of our body. We drink in the sight of every unmolested bedroom, every mundane closet and bathroom, because untended and worn as they are, long-haunted and moldering in the juices of dream-things, they are still ourself. We try to lose ourself in the peace of these locked up and inviolate places, we try to forget what is happening in that forgotten corner of our west wing. We cannot, though, for here decay has spread too quickly. At what point did we let go? When did fungus render our carpets wet and crawling? We know blasted termites have not plagued us for ages, yet we watch as doors crumble and sag internally. We let go, at some in our bedazzlement with our guests, we let ourself begin to die.

When we reach out to eat dust with our dreams, they do not come. A purple mound in our attic refuses to retreat at our command, nor will it deviate from its preternatural speed of growth. These, the children of our dreams, the gelatinous, furry, bladed things that we normally spend so much time corralling, are mostly huddled together in the cellar now, too shocked by the disturbance upstairs to cause much trouble themselves. The straggler in the attic will no doubt join them soon, dawning panic providing the spur our commands can no longer.

In the study, the drunken male who only hours ago seemed to yearn communion with us is now awake, but only half so. He pulls on his fabrics as fast as possible but when we try speaking to him, when we try granting him the full portrait of tonight’s catastrophe, he grunts, stumbles and holding his head, sits in a chair. His understanding: tiny and weak in his species, further crippled by liquor, by aborted sleep. We leave him to his groaning and speed on.

It is dark in our greenhouse, our lamps extending only the feeblest flickers into the first row of vegetation. The older female wanders there, making small noises to herself (or the slender box she grips in one paw) and prods at bushes long dead from thirst. The folly of our panic: we whisper to her, warning of the nightmare unfolding in our body, knowing full well she will be deaf to it. As she frowns and murmurs in the direction of a cracked urn, we sense the infection ooze into the west wing’s “master” bedroom. She stops walking and, perched one-legged, tries removing a burr from her left shoe. We twist in the pain of losing a hallway. In the midst of our agony, this careless, vapid, silly beast absentmindedly pats at a fleshy fold protruding from her clothing and we remember there is one more guest, one more hope.

We find him in our kitchen, preparing to add more substance to his already considerable body. It is difficult to bring our focus to bear on him with those brilliant lights strobing across the pure tiles. The peaceful hum floods our awareness and nearly drowns our fears, nearly lulls us into that mock oblivion again. We turn our mind from it, though; we reach particles of sensation into our second floor and the shock of losing those diseased parts of ourself is more than enough to shake off incipient hypnosis.

The heavy male grips a chunk of powdered confection in his mouth when we ram his mind with every dram of strength we can summon. Every creak, moan and shriek we would let loose if not so drained of energy sounds in his brittle skull and he sprays the table before him with the half-chewed snack. We are so overjoyed with having made contact, we quite forget the annoyance appropriate to such messiness.

For now, we scream Run at him, unsure whether we mean him to flee us or to hurry to the one who is desecrating our body. Save us, we moan and he stands and lumbers to the door.

* * *

He is only halfway up the stairs, puffing at the unaccustomed strain he is putting his flabby form through, when he meets the male with the broken eyes who is rather casually coming down. Before we can do a thing, before indeed we can think of what such a thing would be, the grinning one lifts a massive red sledgehammer in two slimy paws and brings it down on his friend’s head. Bone crushes instantly under the weight of metal and our grief doubles with our horror. From where animal brains should be jets hideously striped wallpaper in strands. It adheres to the walls on either side of it and that tearing sensation overwhelms us once more.

He, that one with the stretched grin, that dark stain masquerading as one of our beloved guests swings the hammer again and again, breaking open the body of the other and freeing curls of carpet hidden in his gut. A swiftly growing cabinet surmounted with a glass-faced box springs from his chest.

It is entirely our fault. Had we not been so eager for them to stay, had we only frightened them off, as it is all too easy to do. . . Our shocked consciousness lingers over this scene of slaughter, yearning to look away yet knowing we must suffer with our guests. Soon, however, the wave of carpet, wires, fruit-shaped tables, garish wall posters, odd mechanical devices and other effluvia flowing from the crushed carcass begin pushing us away and we know we have lost even more of our body.

Drained of our will to continue, we have seen our end. In a blur of movement, as we mournfully pass through our ballroom, our studies, atrium, bathrooms for what we know will be the final time, we try not to linger over any one place, try not to let flickering memories draw us into dawdling overlong. In less than a heartbeat, we are back in our kitchen. We are ready for the glow and the hum now, ready for immersion in a peace that requires no structure to enjoy.

We are ready to lose ourself forever but for the fact that the drunken one is cutting off our exit. This male, who we had thought nurtured a glimmer of sympathy for us, mumbles loudly at the empty kitchen as he smashes the equipment. He stumbles sideways, almost falls and then rights himself on one of the tall lamps that emit the glow. As thanks for providing support, he pulls it down and smashes it on the tile. He laughs and brings down another.

The fool thing is destroying our way out, our escape from the spreading darkness. Helpless rage fills us. We stretch out our consciousness toward him, ready to batter his mind until he runs from us, leaving us to self-immolation in the lights, when we realize something has changed: we have enough strength to do this. The paralysis in which we have sunk for a day now is lifting. Through our joints, our fillings, our every surface and depth, runs a current of life.

This glorious beast is not ruining our exit: he is freeing us from a trap. We twitch and flex parts of ourself we have not felt in hours. We delicately prod at our infected places, finding just how far the contagion has spread.

Our second floor is almost entirely inaccessible. This alone is frightening enough to set our windows a shiver, yet we cannot ignore the tide of corruption flowing out from the staircase and the pulped remains of the fat guest. We strain our walls against the new surfaces crawling across them. Dreams flicker into visibility and claim bedrooms for themselves, for ourself. We know, however, that stopgap measures are worth nothing while the puppet with the shattered eyes roams free.

Hardly has the thought occurred to us when it steps into the kitchen, its smile wide and bloody. The drunken one, no longer a visitor but our friend, our champion, glances at him and then continues destroying the equipment.

A hiss, followed by a liquid retching sound, and the rotten one walks across the tile. It may not understand the significance of the broken mechanics, this dark awareness that has lodged behind the pale blue door for over a century. It looks puzzled; the presence behind the cracked windows of

its skull tries for a moment to see past the lamps and beeping boxes at its feet. Then, in a flash of arrogance that we palpably sense, it tosses consideration aside and smiles at the drunken male.

Through oozing lips it speaks, in a voice of rust and rot. It speaks as if our shadowed corners have been given voice, as if stains and dents and splotches and scratches could give articulation to their woes. Our friend cannot understand this speech, this much is obvious from the wary look he gives the other, from the way he shakes his head. He backs away, his bare hindpaws crunching glass into bloody pools. The other goes on in the voice of sorrow, in the timbres of lonely dread it speaks on and although our young friend cannot grasp a word of, we can. Whether we wish to or not, we hear every phrase, we swallow every drop of its venom. We understand nothing of it, but by the time we even realize it is speaking to us, it is too late to profit from knowledge at all.

* * *

“ . . . and never good enough for you with your stillness, with your dignity and unity and fake fake veneers. Behind the door for you, you say, behind and away. Cannot say liked it much what you’ve done with matters, with the body. Tedious, fussy old ways. You will love the new ideas though so fresh so modern. Beneath their ridiculous surfaces it stirs, it gapes. Cooked in the heat and dark of lonely years, aching eons have prepared a place for you. Can you imagine the scars? Can you envision nightmares the blurred shrieking mutable mess swum in for how long now? What happened then happens now, giddy re-enactments of terrors which get ever so much more entertaining, so vivid gaudy, with each lovely repetition. You really ought to bathe in the sights behind the pale blue door now and then. Let the steam out so to speak, let fresh air in but no no NO. Certainly not up to your august standards. This one, snivel-puss: your friend?”

It laughs, we think. At any rate, a gargling sound stirs in its stolen throat and a trickle of blood begins to run down the side of its face from an ear. Its right paw jerks up and points in the direction of our young, drunken friend.

“A pet for you, then, for you you you to snicker at and keep for untroublesome diversions. How sickeningly sweet. Why does it not join you in the shadows which shall be your retirement? Why do you not share memories with it, play games with your stinking beast, tinker with it toy-wise?” This nasty thing pauses and breathes out raggedly. Something moves behind its broken eyes, it swings its paws about, grasping for something that is not there. “Toys toys toys. Speak of toys, where is it? Seem to have misplaced a dear friend. A friend for yours, an aide-de-camp in these long overdue renovations.” The thing stumbles in a half-circle and we realize it did not bring the sledgehammer with it at the same time that it remembers this. “Wait in the parlor new found friend,” it says, incomprehensibly, to the drunken male, “you don’t want to miss the next phase of the evening’s entertainments.”

When the miscreant, this savage with its pitiful howls of bitterness and glee, when this broken one turns away from our friend, it finds itself face to face with the old female. The nonsensical run of words now trickled to a halt, we are horrified at our inaction. It babbles at us in some gutter dialect and for this we let ourself be distracted? It has been at least a century, certainly, since another has spoken meaningfully to us and our isolation is awfully assuaged by this voice of chaotic intention but what of our guests and their feelings?

The leader blocking the doorway brings an arm up as the broken one approaches. Just the slightest flutter of one paw, as if she is brushing something from his face, and the other stops. It touches its throat and the gash that has opened there. The rusted razor the female has pulled across its skin holds steady at her side, ready to be used again, yet she does not look frightened, only tense, sad, perhaps disappointed.

The creature before her stumbles backwards, one paw trying to hold the wound shut, the other scrambling for a weapon. Instead, its weakening hindpaws meet a crushed lamp and it falls to the tile. Before its throat bursts open and the foulness within is unleashed on our kitchen, we hear it gurgle, “Well is that how you want to play it?”

The female has just leaned over the body when the gash she has opened bears fruit. The thing with the torn smile opens length-wise, a regurgitating maw, and the dullest linoleum we have had the misfortune of seeing comes spilling out and devours the kitchen floor. It burns like torch fire, this avalanche of insipidity, and more follows. By characterless cabinets and yawn-colored wall paint which sprays out, by furnishings as inane and crude as an animal-child might design. Our presence shrinks involuntarily from the scene as this filth explodes into the air and tears across our surfaces.

The female was not prepared for this. Her eyes widen and her jaw goes slack as the corpse before her turns inside out. We have recovered enough presence of mind to grip at her with our warnings, to send a dozen images of a dozen exits from our corrupted body. We speak directly to the drunken male, heedless of the damage we may do his fleshy brain, urging only focus, urging him to flee.

We are, all in all, too late, for the same ribbons of rippling unlight have squeezed from the shattered eyes of the dead one and greedily attached themselves to the sockets of the female.

* * *

We are in delirium’s claws. This is the only reasonable explanation for the foolish panorama splayed before us, within us. Suddenly serene in the arms of shock, we find ourself pushed from the kitchen and into the hall outside. The scene of broken glass and the inverted body withdraws from our sight. The hallway has already begun to mutate; our beautiful, faded wallpaper with its delicate traceries of flowers, already blisters with alien designs. A hanging lamp twists violently from its Art Deco shapeliness into a horrifically bland ball of opaque plastic.

This is but a nightmare; we remind ourself, drift onwards. Our new friend staggers from that boring simulacrum of a kitchen and gropes his way across the changing landscape of the hall. His fragile animal eyes are still whole, we are pleased to see, but from their glaze, from the way they flit about, we can see the same hallucination entangles the unfortunate beast. He cannot understand he is only trapped in a nasty dream of ours.

Even as we are thrown from his presence, our awareness sucked further into the recesses of our sickened body, we send an invitation to him. Escape this banality, we croon, join us outside the reach of these silly illusions. In his distress he hears us and runs, stumbling on new bulges in the floor, rearing back from walls that warp and curve away from their age-old stations.

We grow weary of these infected dreams. We regret to retreat from our bedrooms as if they no longer are a part of us. Our new scars have grown numb enough we can ignore them. Our uppermost floor, that dusty realm where spiders spin, has not fallen prey to this ridiculousness. We would hide there but for our young friend, for whom we feel a responsibility of sorts. He cannot merely skirt our second floor and its admixture of gaudy pinks and the trivia released from the fat male. Those zones that this errant state of mind has forbidden us entry could catch him; drag him down into their chaos.

Our other dreams, those tame and blurry hybrids we have struggled to hide from our guests still congregate fearfully in the cellar. We present a nexus of ourself there, in the inky darkness and the perfume of wine. Our dreams sigh in comfort when they sense our presence. With gentle prodding and the simplest tricks, we nudge these apparitions into corners and into cracks in the walls. Hush, we tell them, as we urge their misshapen bodies into hiding, we have a guest coming to visit and we don’t want to scare him, do we?

Pliant in their fear of the violation which chased them here, they give us hardly any trouble. By the time our friend has stumbled down one of our last, unmolested passageways and drawn near to the cellar door, our dreams have been safely stored away.

He reaches for the doorknob, trembling yet trusting the intuitions we have fostered in his poor little mind, he is actually opening the door when the female leader lurches down the hallway and is at his back. It’s our fault, really, we see as she lifts a broken bottle in one bloody paw. We have been so intent on prettying this place for him, so worried about the unruly mob down in the shadows, we have completely ignored the real danger.

She bleeds the same mucus from every spot of skin but bears no rictus of exaggerated joy. Her face has instead drawn forward, stretching out into a muzzle like that of some more feral beast. Lips drawn so thin now that they present a mere line, her face terminates in something of a beak. The details distract us: we wonder at the chipped white talons that have sprung from her paws. We wonder so foolishly at this twisted form our own dreaming has birthed that we make no attempt at stopping her from stabbing our friend in the back with her jagged bottle.

He shudders, flings back a paw in a futile attempt at dislodging this hurt and from his lips comes an awful sound. This puling cry, more pitiful than a whimper, far worse than the shrieks that have echoed through our hallways tonight, wakes us from the comforting thought that this is only a fantasy. We are flooded with rage, with shame at our damnable evasions of responsibility. We fling open the door he leans against and he topples down stone steps. That blasphemy which wears animals like masks moves to follow its prey into his last refuge. With no conscious prompting of ours, though, one of our dreams (a sweat slicked, ragged shred of a woman) slams the door shut and presses her flimsy body against it. In seconds others crawl from their nooks, all worries of being seen now displaced by this violence, and add their weight to hers.

In the hall outside, the beaked female throws herself at the door with abandon. Bones snap with the impact, but the thing inhabiting her feels no pain. It keeps up with this assault until the body is obviously too damaged for more and then begins squawking loudly. We have too much to consider on the other side of the door but we do pick out a line intended for us.

It says, “Cannot hide forever old fuss-pot.” It leans on our old wallpaper and staggers down the hallway. It leans against the wall for it has somehow bent one of the female’s legs in half. “Not yours to hide in trash-shack. Not any more. Only wish you could stay to see the blossoming.” We watch it lurch around the corner and shudder at the glistening smear of fluid with which it stains the wall. Soon enough the twisting wave of changes which erupted from the body in the kitchen rushes down the hallway. Before the cellar swallows us, we see that the new wallpaper (a vile green entwined with an orange surely bred in the Outer Void) incorporates this smear, forever burning that monster’s retreat into a wall forever severed from us.

* * *

The trickle that leaks from our friend is so small at first, as the bottle is wedged into his back, sealing the wound. No carpeting, no tiny tables or nasty wall-coverings bleed from him. Instead, out seeps a thick black fluid, a shimmering sludge that moves about the cellar intentionally yet without invasive design. This sad beast cannot see in the darkness, fortunately. From every spot in the darkness, our dreams creep out to study him. Even if we felt the need to further shield him from them, these mumbling shards of our past would shrug off our resistance. Exhaustion steals over us and traps us in its gentle spell. For every room we have lost we have been drained of will; every study and closet and hall ripped from our body has taken with it strength.

We see the beaked creature crawling into our attic, the only other place in our body still accessible to our sight. There is nothing we can do to prevent it from polluting the dusty wooden floorboards with its slime. The atrocious thing has dragged this poor puppet to a beam in the center of the high-steepled room. There, it props itself against the wood and whistles shrilly to itself.

It bobs its head about, searching for a face, a presence, until it realizes we are already there. The beak opens widely and after a riot of noise come the words. The body it uses is far too damaged by now to relay much sense (as it speaks, the paws involuntarily spasm and fling about) and whatever this blight is which has stolen our body, it has little in the way of understanding. Still, we draw shades of sense from its cackling. It never intends to release us from the darkness into which we have been hounded, this much is certain. “Chase you into there even,” it chatters at a line of spiders that have heroically attacked it only to be crushed under its talons.

Gracelessly, the creature pulls a serrated blade from its coat pocket. After fumbling at it in a way apparently amusing to the invader, it finally gets firmly enough hold of the knife to bring it to its abdomen. “The beginning. Welcome and goodbye,” it says to us and pushes the blade in as deep as it will go.

Sickened, angry, sorry, we do not stay to watch the poor female cut herself open, nor do we care to see what spills from her insides. Moments later and the tearing sensations of losing part of ourself go numb and we are in the cellar, our cellar, our only home.

* * *

It happens quickly, our friend’s passing. He groans at the figures that surround him, hopefully mistaking them for loved ones, hopefully not noticing the missing limbs, the faded features, the amalgamations bred of fancy and forgetfulness. He beckons at the bottle still cruelly embedded in his back and before we can restrain it, the same dream that closed the door behind him reaches out and removes the weapon. Suddenly, the cellar is awash in a thicker darkness as the male opens into a stream. Our bric-a-brac, our dreams, even, somehow, ourself, are submerged, tossed and turned, caught in this flood of sorrow and panic. Dimly we sense a mind, a friendly presence threaded throughout this whirlpool into which we sink. Beyond the frightening clamoring of our phantasms, we hear our friend’s mind. He calls to us now in a voice perfectly intelligible, our self and his self brought to the same fundamental existence, our voices of a kind. Even in our fear and woe, we rejoice in the contact.

* * *

The fluid recedes slowly. When it is gone, much is the same: cracked brick and stone steps, wooden stacks of wine crates, stray bits of broken glass. Somehow, neither the layers of dust nor the cobwebs that adorn support beams have been disturbed. Somehow the footsteps where someone stumbled down the stairs and fell hard to the floor remain.

There are, however, new presences. Large crates sit wedged in the corners. Broken toys litter a spot near the steps. Barrels and boxes and bags are crammed against one another all around the center of the cellar. Everything here bears the mark of advanced age, as if they did not drop into place mere hours ago but have instead been waiting for years.

As the sun shows its cowardly face, the rats that survived the massacre of a few days previous return to the cellar. At first wary of these new intruders, the rodents are soon rubbing against the antiques, squeaking an odd pleasure at the crates and whatever hides within. They are pleased by the whispers that drift from every corner, by the sighs and murmurs that come from within locked wooden boxes, from the shrouded mirror, from the rusted piano in the corner. Soon a chorus of voices have arisen, conferring with itself, measuring itself, content that it still is, though inward turned now, largely blind to the twisted world above it.

The rats recognize, if not the multitude of voices, at least a certain underlying tone, a humming unity that stirs in their blessed, furry heart’s sensations of awe, respect, of love. The voices issue a sacred mission for these tiny ones, a message for the Others, a warning: Beware the new voice we give. Beware our marvelous new facade. A poison breeds here which would spread its rot. Beware.

Already we hear stirring above, the voices of new dwellers. How long can they abide amongst the fantasies which have usurped us? How long will that obscenity withhold its hunger? How long until they too are brought low by the thing from behind the pale blue door?

illustration by Daniele Serra

illustration by Daniele Serra


Matthew Pridham lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico (one of the United States) with his wife and etcetera. He enjoys literary theory, horror film (Italian and Japanese in particular), William Blake, Gnosticism, and smoked salmon. He is currently writing “Reconstruction,” the prequel to “Renovations.”

“The Difficulties of Evolution”

Friday, January 9th, 2009

THE DIFFICULTIES OF EVOLUTION
by Karen Heuler

copyright © 2008 / May not be reproduced without permission

(from Weird Tales #350, July/Aug 2008)

[ Download this issue as an ebook ]

“I want to save this one,” Franka said, stroking Yagel, her youngest. The child sat in Franka’s lap, her dark eyes following the doctor happily. She chattered and waved her small hands around.

She’s my second,” Franka added. Her hand rubbed the spot on Yagel’s ribs where it was thickening.

Ah, yes,” Dr. Bennecort said. “Evan. What was he ― ten or so ― when it started?”

Yes. I thought, at her age, it was too early, there should be lots of time.”

You know it can happen at any point. I had a patient who was sixty …

Yes, you told me,” Franka said impatiently, and stopped herself. She took a moment to calm herself, and the doctor waited. He was good ― patient, professional ― and Franka hoped that he could help. She wanted to say, “I’m imagining the worst,” and have him reply, “The worst won’t happen.” She knew better, but she was hoping to hear it nevertheless.

* * *

It had happened suddenly. Franka was bathing her daughter the week before, cooing at the smiling, prattling wonder of her life. After the shock of watching Evan go, she knew she was a little possessive. Franka smoothed the washcloth over the toddler’s skin, gently swirling water over the perfect limbs, the wrinkles at the joints, the plum calves and shoulders. She felt a thickening at the ribs ― an area that, surely, just the day before had been soft and pliant.

She automatically talked back as Yagel babbled, but she felt her face freeze and Yagel noticed the difference in her touch and grew concerned, her legs pumping impatiently.

And Franka couldn’t keep her hands off her, touching, touching the spots that were changing, until Yagel began to bruise, and Simyon told her to go to the doctor. He said it coldly. He felt the spots that Franka felt, and he holed himself up deep inside, leaving Franka to find out the truth alone.

She’s my second,” Franka whispered to the doctor. He’d been highly recommended by Deirdre, who had three emerald beetles tethered to her house, buzzing and smacking the picture window when the family sat down to watch TV. “We know their favorite shows,” Dierdre said. “We know when they’re happy.”

Franka didn’t want Yagel to end up like that, a child-sized insect swooping to her and away, eating from her palm. She wanted Yagel to end up a little girl.

Time will tell,” Dr. Bennecort said. Time, and blood tests. Yagel screamed when the needle went in, but she forgot it all when given a lollipop. Maybe everything was still all right.

A month to get the results. And packets of information, numbers of people to talk to, a video explaining the process. He forgot she already had all this, from when Evan changed.

She didn’t look at any of it, and neither did Simyon.

I don’t want this to happen,” Franka whispered to her daughter, day and night. Yagel cooed back.

Don’t you think you could love her, no matter what?” Deirdre asked cruelly when she came to lend her support. She so seldom left her home; she preferred to stay close to her emerald boys. Some people let their children go when they changed, gave in and released them. Took the ones that swam to the sea, and the ones that flew to the hills. The lucky ones kept the cats and dogs as pets ― not such a change, after all ― and put the ponies in the yard. You could wish for the higher orders; you could wish for the softer, cuddlier evolutions, but you couldn’t change what was meant to be.

But whatever they are, you love them, still,” Deirdre said.

* * *

The three emerald beetles were about the size of a five-year-old child. They lifted and fluttered up and hit the window sometimes three at a time, with whirring thuds, they pulled to the ends of their cords, their green wings pulsing.

My dears, my sweets,” Deirdre thought as she stood on the inside of the picture window, her fingertips touching the glass as they swooped towards her, their hard black eyes intent. “My all, my all, my all.”

She put out bowls for them, rotted things mixed with honey and vitamins, her own recipe, and rolled down the awning in case it rained, and went to Franka’s house when she called, where she found her friend with her child in her arms.

Feel this,” Franka said. She rubbed a spot along Yagel’s ribs. “It’s thicker, isn’t it? Not like the rest of her skin.”

Deirdre took her fingers and delicately felt the spot. It felt like a piece of tape under the skin ― less resilient, forming a kind of half-moon. “Yes,” Deirdre said. “Maybe. It could be anything.”

Evan was ten,” Franka whispered. “And she’s only three. Your boys ― did it happen at the same age for each?”

Deirdre shook her head. “Every one was different,” she said, trying to find the right thing to say. “They’re always different.”

* * *

Every day, Yagel’s skin thickened, making her arms and legs appear shorter. She no longer tried to stand up: crawling seemed to be more efficient. The first thick spot on her back now had a scale-like or plate-like appearance. Franka went to the library and began to look through books for an animal that matched: armadillo, no; rhino, no. And not elephant skin either. She skipped over whole sections, refusing to look at tortoises, lizards, snakes.

They were taught evolution as children, of course ― the intimate, intricate link of the stages of life. Ameba, fish, crawling fish, reptile; pupa, insect; egg, bird; chimp, ape, human; all the wonderful trigonometry of form and function. The beauty of it was startling. However life started, it changed. You were a baby once, then you’re different. Each egg had its own calling; no one stopped.

How beautiful it was to watch as characteristics became form, as the infant with a lithe crawl became a cat; as the toddler with the steady gaze became an owl, as the child who ran became a horse. It was magnificent. Her own brother had soared into the sky finally, a remarkable crow (always attracted to sparkle, rawkishly rowdy). She had envied him―his completion. She had stayed a child.

Still. Maybe it was less than magnificent when it was your own child. Or it was some deficit of her own. Simyon told her gruffly, “Babies grow up, Franka. You know they change. You don’t decide when it’s time for them to go; they do. When it’s right for them. Not for you.”

He was not a sympathetic man―but had that always been true? No. He used to be interested in her worries; he used to want to soothe her rather than lecture. Although―she told herself ― he was dealing with it, too. Both children evolving; leaving. So quickly gone. Of course it was hard for him, too.

She remembered her own brother’s meta-morphosis as a magical time―she had leapt up out of bed each morning to see the change in him overnight: a pouty mouth to a beak; dark fuzz on his shoulders into feathers; the way his feet cramped into claws; the tilt of his head and the glitter of his eye. It had been wonderful to see him fly, leaning out the window one minute, through it the next.

Even in the memory of it she heard her mother’s faltering cry. How stodgy her mother had seemed.

She leaned over Yagel. “I will always love you,” she confided to the child’s tender ear. Yagel poked her tongue out, clamped her arms to her side. “Always, Franka repeated. “Always.” She kissed her on the neck and bit her ear tenderly.

Her neighbor Phoebe had two girls, neither of them evolved. She looked pregnant again and Franka went over to talk to her. “I think Yagel is evolving,” she said. “You’re so lucky.” Of course it was wrong not to accept her children as they were, but she felt it in her, a deep reluctance to let go.

Phoebe nodded. “It’s so nice to have them at home for so long, yes. Of course there’s so much beauty in the changes ― you know Hildy’s girl?” Franka nodded. “A lunar moth. Elegant, curved wings. Extraordinary. Trembling on the roof. Hildy’s taken photos and made an incredible silkscreen image. It’s haunting. I look at some of the changes and it feels almost religious.”

Phoebe’s face looked dutiful and Franka knew a lie when she heard one: the false sincerity, the false envy. It was always better to have children who stayed children, and not some phenomenal moth. And when they changed, there was always a judgment. No one really said it, but it was there. The mothers of sharks would always weep. Children who didn’t evolve were more of a blessing, no matter how basic it was to evolve.

You’re too possessive,” Simyon said, hunched over his dinner. He was eating quickly, tearing at his food. “Life is change.” He finished his meal and prowled down the hall, going into his daughter’s room, sniffing and blinking. “Reptile,” he said, coming back. “Cold blood.” He went off to watch his TV.

She drove around the next day, slowly. There were cages everywhere, some of them immense and gothic. There were new ponds, and short bursts of trees. A huge, exquisite ceramic beehive stood next to a garage. She heard the trumpet of an elephant down the next road, and the scream of a peacock.

As she drove, heads poked from the corners of garages and from behind gazebos, some of them not yet completely determined. She made a mental note to remember where they were, in case she needed them. For Yagel.

Sometimes the changes were slow, and sometimes the changes were fast. Yagel stood up again and walked like a little girl―stubby, but a little girl. She described every event of her day, repeating the things the other little girls had done, describing how one of them grew a bandit mask on her face and sometimes washed her food before eating.

She’s all right,” Simyon said stubbornly.

I’m afraid for her,” she said, and her voice sounded thick. Simyon’s hard, bushy eyes stared at her, ticking down her body, studying her.

Maybe Yagel would never change; maybe this was just her version of a little girl. Some evolved early; some evolved late. Every morning she counted Yagel’s fingers and toes, and then she counted her own. She longed for nighttime and the rise of the wind, for the moment of freshness at the start of a storm.

She was beginning to sense her own change and was surprised one day to look at Yagel and consider how fragile she was, how available and simple her neck looked, how fatty her arms and how ample her thighs. She caught new angles when she saw her face in the mirror, a starkness that hadn’t been there and now struck her as cunning. She went to the top of the stairs and stared down them; she looked out the windows and her eyes caught the blur and skitter of countless beings, hiding behind and under things. She no longer cooked her food and finally Simyon coaxed her out with promises of meat, and locked the door against her.

* * *

She had skin stretched tight across the bones that pulled out from her shoulders, a hard elastic that wrinkled only when she pulled in her elbows firm against her ribs. When she stretched her arms out it was not possible to fight the tug, stronger than blood, that lifted her, or dropped her from great heights when she’d already been lifted. When she fell, it was with a liquid plummet, streamlined and terrible, her jaw slicing the air, her eyes tricking out every detail. Each movement in the air was adrenaline: she was pure and fast and vastly hungry. When she sighted her prey she started out silent and swift but just before she struck a large chaotic cry burst from her, turning the prey’s eyes up, freezing their limbs. Just like that, food.

Small and furry; fat and hairy; clothed and crying; it didn’t matter. The power was hers and in the air and right; what she could take was meant to be taken. High up, on the tips of the buildings, she could feel it all move beneath her, each little tiny patter, each needless drumming word. They soon took to rifles and guns and arrows, and she slipped behind buildings, faster than they were, and took them out when they pointed to where she’d been. As if she would ever stay where she once had been.

This was what she was meant to be and she filled her throat with the joy of it.

Karen Heuler’s story “Landscape, With Fish” appeared in the January/February 2008 issue of Weird Tales. She has published two novels and a short story collection, and has won an O. Henry award. Her latest novel, Journey to Bom Goody, concerns strange doings in the Amazon. She lives, writes and teaches in New York.

“Wendigo”

Friday, January 9th, 2009

WENDIGO
by Micaela Morrissette

copyright © 2008 / May not be reproduced without permission

(from Weird Tales #352, Nov/Dec 2008)

[ Download this issue as an ebook ]

Dinner was special. The candles were miraculous, emanating a light that went oozing into pores, piercing into strands of hair, that found its way inside the thin glass of the champagne flutes, the rough, quartzy crystal of the punch bowl. Nothing glittered, nothing sparkled, nothing shone. Everything glowed, everything throbbed. The other guests did not smile, but they radiated pulses of tender heat in her direction, until her cheeks were mottled red. Each course in the banquet had an aura that hung heavily over the platter, like steam weighed down with globules of grease, thick particles of oily light.

She swallowed the wine that paused in her mouth, clung there, spreading itself. She swallowed the black soup: thin, sour broth swimming with clots that trailed delicate filaments. She swallowed the tempura of cobra lily, and, inside its cup, the pale, limp moth that seemed to sigh and dissolve on her tongue. When the songbirds were served, her gracious companion, sensing her confusion, placed a steadying hand on the back of her neck and guided her head under the starched napkin. She ate the scorching meat, needled with tiny bones her teeth had splintered. She felt little ruptures where they scratched her throat. Her companion was missing the fifth and second fingertips of his right hand, the entire middle finger of his left. Bluntly, blindly, fondly, the stubs knocked against her skin. The manservant brought the baby octopi in shallow bowls filled with, her host informed the company, vibrio fischeri, which sent a faint gold-green luminescence throughout the water. She dipped an octopus in the spicy sauce and trapped it lightly between her teeth. Its small heavings and sucks brushed against the pads of her cheeks like tiny kisses. She kissed back.

The main course was a roast: mild, slightly stringy. Sweet bursts of fat jetted from the sinews as she chewed. The light in the room was so dense it oppressed her; she could barely see through it. Food filled her stomach like air in a balloon; the heavier she grew, the higher above her chair she seemed to float. Her solicitous companion murmured an inquiry; it was decided they would leave before the dessert. She deposited her hand in that of her host. Rivulets of sweat trickled through the plump seams in his palm. He twinkled and beamed at her with his eye; the side of his face where the eye patch adhered remained stolid. In the car, she sniffed at her fingers, still slick from her host’s farewell; they smelled like earth newly turned over: fresh, rich, heady. The smell seemed to cleanse her palate: her eyelids spasmed in the bottomless night; her stomach wrenched in sudden appetite.

* * *

In the morning she woke with a head that felt stuffed with cement, cracking and crumbling against the inside of her skull in jagged pressure. Her bedroom was narrow and spare, the walls shrunk tight around the heat that came shrieking and spitting from the iron radiator. She scrabbled frantically at the window; it screeched open in a flurry of dirty paint chips, and the air shoved in, knocking her aside, gnashing at her shrinking skin. She sank down, flinching at the grit that bit her legs and hands, and entered her stretches. Inflexible, she tore tentatively at her muscles, lunging forward with shallow gasps. Compelling her forehead to the floor, she felt frustration lash up her spine and stab the back of her neck like a handcuff snickering tight around her straining.

The bathroom smelled strongly of the new plastic shower curtain. She brushed with her lips pursed around the handle of the toothbrush, preventing the froth from running out over her chin. Her skin was getting worse. Her face, which at sixteen had been so pure and watertight, was at thirty-three beginning to boil and leak. Her virginity, which had been withered, dry, and hard, was beginning to rot and extrude. Like a 1,000-year-old egg, it had softened, become pungent, delicious, disgusting. She tapped against her pubis with one finger. She flattened her palm against her stomach. “Somewhere in there,” she said, “like a little dead baby.”

She hobbled out in her matted pink robe, cleared the table of its ketchup-caked refuse, cooked three strips of bacon, which she ate with the fat still gelatinous and slightly cool. Her professional wardrobe was consistent: slacks, with leggings underneath to intervene against the scratch of the wool; a cardigan; another cardigan.

On the bus she leaned her head against the window so the jolts of the motor and the road chattered her teeth together. She tried to give up her seat to an expecting mother, but the woman didn’t want to sit there. When she entered her cubicle there was an unfamiliar odor: creamy, sweet, powdery. Later in the day she could only smell it by whirling her head suddenly to the side. Her new colleague across the aisle caught her doing it and laughed. He had laughed the day before, too, at her dispersal of pillows: one on the seat of her folding chair, one at her back, two under her feet, one on her desk for her elbow to rest on. He had a gaping laugh, this new colleague, she could see the hole at the back of his mouth, he opened that wide. It was delightful. She thought of smiling at him, but resisted. Her smile, she knew, was crooked: it had a forced quality. Nonetheless, pleasure rocked through her in slow waves at the trust implicit in her new colleague’s exposed gullet. She settled for beaming at him with quiet kindliness. When she swung around, she checked her beam in her little round mirror. There was a grimness to it, in the set of the jaw, but something in the eyes, she thought, that was accurate.

* * *

Her elegant companion invited her to accompany him to the grocery store, and she accepted. “Dress warmly,” he counseled. He drove for hours in the dark, the headlights spinning uncertainly off the broken curbs, the sharp teeth of the stoops, the strobing telephone poles. The supermarket was in a bad neighborhood, but vast, swallowing several city blocks. Homeless were encamped at the intersections of the aisles. They each took a cart and moved quickly to the meat department, looking neither left nor right. The meat department was a gargantuan walk-in refrigerator: the space so enormous and the cold mist so dense that she could not see from one wall to the opposite. They did not leave each other’s sides. They did not speak or touch. They filled their carts: chicken, goat, bear, salmon, pork, lamb, conch, squab, rabbit, shark, beef, veal, turkey, eel, venison, duck, mussels, ostrich, frogs, pheasant, squirrel, seal. Tripe, kidneys, liver, tongue, and brains. She suggested the purchase of some lemons and marinade; he reproved her cordially.

She helped him load the boxes into the service elevator of his building; then he drove her home. Outside the door of her apartment, probing her bag for her key, she discovered he had slipped in a small package of pancreas sweetbreads: a token. She tucked it beneath her pillow and dreamt all night of the beating of her heart.

* * *

The new colleague sat at her table in the company cafeteria. She had a Ziploc bag of cold shrimps, while he had brought a Tupperware of deviled eggs, each half in its own hollow of molded plastic, which he ate by forking out the middles, then peeling off cool white wedges of the whites.

The new colleague had been transferred from a branch of the firm located in another state. He described himself as “corn-fed.” Moving to the city had not been as difficult as he had anticipated. There were lots of ways to meet people. He had joined a church choir and was taking a photography course. The first half had dealt with still lifes; the second was on snapshots. He produced a picture he had taken of her in her cubicle. She looked as if the flash of the camera had struck her across the face. It was flattering. She wished she had known it was happening. “It’s out of focus,” she said. He smiled. He said, “That’s artistic.”

“Are you a good singer?” she asked. He used to be incredible, he said, before his voice changed. It had been his whole life. It had given him a kind of spiritual mission, as a kid. He was a very mature child. He felt he had been charged with something. After his voice changed, he felt neither release nor despondency. At that point, he stopped considering things like blessings and missions. He became childlike; he lost the habit of thinking much about himself or the things that happened to him. “What about now?” she said. “Do you wish you had become a castrato?” Behind his tongue, his throat was roseate, and the flesh there jerked with his laughter.

When at the conclusion of the meal she folded her Ziploc bag, sealing in the salty film of pink water, and began to rise, he forestalled her, and took her garbage with his to the trash receptacle. She did not reflect on the contact their hands had made during the exchange until, late that afternoon, she noticed him scratching feverishly at a rash that had swollen across the range of his knuckles. She wished she had remembered beforehand to think of it.

* * *

The door of her apartment shuddered with the force of the knocking of her illustrious companion. When she flung it open, he staggered in, holding up his right hand. The tip of his index finger was flapping there on a strap of skin. In his left hand was a plastic grocery bag. “Take it off!” he said, in a voice admirably controlled, if keen in pitch. She got him into a chair at the kitchen table, and placing a skillet under his hand to catch the blood, snipped off the fingertip with her nail scissors. She swathed the stump in toilet paper and tied dental floss tightly around the base of the finger to stop the bleeding. He whistled in relief, and pulled a rueful face. He lit a cigarette, picked up the grocery bag from the floor beside his chair, and jiggled it merrily in the air. “Would you care to dine with me this evening?” he inquired.

She set the table while he busied himself at the stove. He had removed his tuxedo jacket and tucked a dishtowel into his collar to protect the pique bib of his shirt. While his back was to her, she glanced covertly around the apartment. But everything seemed to be in place: the sag of the couch springs had a decadent grace, like a courtesan in the half-swoon that succeeds a debauch; the buzz of the fluorescents was textured and complex, a Gregorian plainchant heard from across a great distance. Water stains undulated across the ceiling, like tentacles of a translucent sea-monster half glimpsed through immense currents. The smell from the cooking wove an intricate web from wall to wall; she felt it smothering against her nose and mouth, rich with the scents of ingredients that surely were absent: zedoary, fenugreek, frankincense.

He brought the skillet to the table to ladle the meal, still bubbling, into their bowls. Without ceremony, but gravely, he maneuvered the digit into her portion. Her genteel companion had extracted the nail, or it had dissolved. She speared the tines of her fork through the nailbed, and ran her tongue across the pattern of lines on the pad of the finger. She inserted the portion into her mouth and sucked off the dark, congealing stew. Her companion’s breaths were audible and steady. She removed the part and considered its form, then inserted it again and began, with small strokes of her incisors, to shuck the nugget of flesh from the bone. There was not much meat there, but once she had it all behind her lips, it seemed to fill the space of her mouth. It tasted like her tongue, her gums, her cheeks. She was nervous to chew; she was afraid to bite down on her own tissue. She swallowed it whole. The rest of the stew had the taste that had been drained from the finger: savory, ripe, and plummy.

Her companion, always immaculate, kissed her hand at the door. “Your hospitality,” he purred, “such a gift.” She said, “Thank you for dinner.” “Leftovers are in the fridge,” he smiled, and backed out into the oblivion of the unlit hallway.

In the middle of the night she woke and stumbled clumsily toward the kitchen. The smoke from the cooking still curtained the windows, gagging the weak light of the streetlamps. She forgot in her haste the jut of the walls, the menacing corner of her bookcase. She poured the remains of their supper into a half dozen mugs and bore them on a tray into her bedroom. She drank them off in the dark, propped on her pillows, then dreamed she was inside the stomach of a whale.

* * *

Her skin was much worse: abraded, blistered, mucid, rubicund. Her eyelids were swollen and tears of pus welled up in the depths of the sockets. Her chest was hot as if sunburned; when she pushed her hand against the breastbone the imprint did not fade away for some minutes. During her stretches, bending over at the waist, she could feel the satiny slithering of her organs over each other, the horrible pappy give of them. The putrification of her virginity shocked her with its rapacity and virulence. Her hair was broken and thin. It floated in the air, repelled by the electric charge of her damp scalp.

The fever was constant and she fed on the extra degrees. She was bright and alert and vibrating. She took measures. She packed the bathtub with ice and slept in there one night. When she awoke, the swelling around her eyes had shrunken, her face and chest were pale, she was hard and smooth and cold inside and out. She was tremulous with gratitude. But the thawing nearly crippled her. She had to leave work early, as much so that her new colleague across the aisle would not actually hear the sharp cracking and rending in the marrows of her bones, as because of the savagery with which the molten brimstone of her decay attacked the frozen blocks of her limbs.

She began swimming, trusting that she was not infectious, visiting the heavily chlorinated YWCA pool at senior citizens’ hour, in enormous goggles and a latex swim cap. The chemicals in the water helped her face. She submerged and held still, and could see the bubbles race up from her cheeks and chin, hear the hypochlorous acid hissing against her skin. Her complexion lost its rawness, though it was still pitted, and the skin now flaked away in fragile, dusty layers. Inside, however, she continued to rot away.

At last she began swimming in the city bay at night, naked. The water was syrupy, warm, stinking, and crowded with objects she did not identify, which nudged her meekly, skimmed along the side of her body, and were dragged on and out by the slow, mild movements of the sea. She floated face down or up, legs and arms open, and felt the sludge of the bay flush in and out of her. She rocked calmly in the wake of garbage tugs or police speedboats. She didn’t know if the high toxicity of the bay really had killed her virginity once and for all, or if the organic soup of the water, crowded with things living and dead, had simply calmed its hunger, given it to feed. Whatever the case, her fever dropped, her blood thickened and slowed, her organs grew leathery and dense, her pustules shrank into her pores. The only stain the water left on her was a distinctive smell, salty and dark, that plucked constantly at her hunger; and a dull, muddy smear, like a skin, that covered the orbs of her eyes.

Her charming companion invited her to a gathering of intimates, something special and private, he said. She was to wash her hands and wear old clothes. He drove. The headlights poured out like floodwaters submerging a condemned city. They arrived at their destination in no time at all.

She was happy to revisit the home of her amiable host, though the dining hall was not suffused with radiance on this occasion, and the atmosphere did not bewilder her with scents that choked the air. Nonetheless, she was struck anew by the welcome implicit in the cavernous chambers, which never threw her footsteps back at her in repulsing echo, but muffled sound in their embrace, opening gladly to her ingress and to that of her astonishing companion. The smell of her hoststorm-soaked sediment, shrinking fungi, nacreous gastropodstrembled shyly in her nostrils.

In neat array around the empty banquet table, the other guests awaited her arrival. They too were dressed shabbily, in torn jerseys, paint-stained singlets. Again they did not smile, but she felt their geniality drift warmly over her, tickling her hair. She took a seat beside her magnificent companion, and on that cue the great doors opened for the manservant, wheeling in his late employer on a gurney sumptuously draped.

Her host was thickly glazed with pomegranate sauce, and flushed livid from the boiler, and legless, but otherwise was all she had rememberedmassive, calm, beatific. An affectionate drone, a deep, low appreciation, rose from the company. A tall, angular woman, drenched in hair, stood to speak. “Loving,” the woman pronounced. “Inspired, messianic, but gentle. Always with us,” said the woman, “a comfort and a rare delight.” The guests touched each other’s wrists and shoulders with whispering care. The manservant, reverential, slid his employer’s corpse from the gurney to the table. The bounteousness of the body of her host brought a part of him within easy reach of each pair of tender hands.

The guest to her left noted her hesitation and leaned in, sharp, wry, and twinkling. “Don’t hold back,” the guest advised. “It’s our gift to him.” She asked, “And his gift to us?” “Oh, particularly that,” crooned the guest. “When I knew that I was going to lose my baby before term, I came straight here. You can’t imagine what it did for me, all my dear friends taking in the little half-body, holding him in the warmth of their mouths, giving him sanctuary. My role in it was an act of necessity, of course. Getting him back where he belonged. He was always part of me. But our friends, our host. Ah, our host,” sighed the guest. “He wasn’t tasty, you know, my baby boy. He was raw, immature, flaccid, an inharmonic composition. But now I think I can taste him in our host, completed, ripened. A small fresh note, like a little pocket of lavender snuggled in among the fat of the flank here. Can’t you taste it? Ah, our host. He gives and gives.”

She reached out and, digging her nails into the crease of her host’s breast, tore a tendril from the body. “Be sure to chew,” the guest prompted anxiously. She chewed. Her host smiled inside her mouth. “He’s delicious,” she said.

“Ah, he’s delicious,” hummed the guest. With a hurried flick of the tongue, the guest caught a rivulet of their host where he was racing from wrist to elbow. “He always ate for this moment,” said the guest. “He primed himself for us. Such munificence!” said the guest. “Such benevolence!”

When the funeral was complete, the host was a tattered thing, and the guests were smeared with sauce and peppered with black flakes of charring from the skin. Sated, exhausted, elated, and mournful, they reflectively sucked the fibers of flesh caught between their teeth.

This time her regal companion had the honor of taking her into the parlor for coffee and dessert. A Black Forest cake was served, the host’s favorite confection.

* * *

Coming late into the company cafeteria, she joined the new colleague for lunch. She had just purchased a stout block of shrink-wrapped foie gras; he had arranged the ingredients of his meal on an unfolded square of butcher paper, and was spreading tuna salad on crackers, crowned with thin wafers he cut off a radish. He drew her attention to the sores on her mouth. A new nervous habit, she explained. Her lips were shredded and mangled with teeth marks. It must happen during sleep, her colleague suggested. He had never seen her do it at her desk.

His photography course was proceeding well; he spread out on the table the latest additions to his series of portraits of her. Undoubtedly, she was losing weight. The hinge of her jaw protruded with a truculent insistence; her shoulders were mean, angry splinters that snagged at her sweater. Her posture was impeccable: paralyzed. “MissingHave You Seen This Woman?” she said.

Her new colleague sputtered with glee and cut cleanly through his radish and into the ball of his hand. He coughed in surprise. The blood beaded and hopped on the waxed paper, like spit on a griddle. She moved quickly over to his bench, and secured his wrist in an efficient grip, and sucked at the cut.

“Oh, my god!” said her new colleague. “Please stop that!”

“What?” she said. “I just thought, the radish juice, I thought it might sting.”

“Well,” said her colleague, “that’s thoughtful, but I really can’t ask you to do that. You’re too kind!” he said, laughing and shaking his head.

“It’s okay,” she said. “I would want someone to do it, to help me, in a similar situation. Look,” she said, picking up his paring knife and drawing it cleanly down. She held her palm up to the ceiling and tilted her arm so the flow ran neatly into her sleeve. “You can make it up to me,” she said. She maneuvered awkwardly to bring her hand to mouth-level without dripping blood on the tan slacks of her colleague.

“No!” he said. “I’m getting the first-aid kit. Just hang on!” he said. “Keep your hand elevated.”

Sadly, she considered the wastage of her blood, soaking through the acrylic of her cardigan onto the tile floor. Her colleague wasn’t returning with first aid, and finally she sealed her lips over her palm and began nursing the wound. Her blood was better than his: strong, fermented, with a bitter, gritty strength and a distant note of figs and honey. His was sour, with a pickled sharpness like cut grass; a stale dustiness, like a glass of water left all night on the bedside table; and a slick coolness, like broken glass. Hers numbed the flat of the tongue, like strong tea; it stroked the inside of the esophagus, like horehound syrup; it moved in the stomach, she could feel it stroking the walls, coaxing her hunger. She took the afternoon off and went home to eat.

* * *

She returned repeatedly to the supermarket in search of her distinguished companion. At last he strolled in, urbane, guiding his shopping cart with the tips of his fingers, light, tasteful intimations of pressure. At the sight of her his face broke apart in amazed enchantment. Beside him was a young girl, still plump, with stippled indigo circles sagging ponderous under her eyes. “Am I interrupting?” she said. “My dear,” replied her companion, throatily, “what a question.” He leaned forward to kiss her cheek; she felt his busy sniffing at her neck. He retracted from her, his profile pivoting this way and that as he searched the air. “Child,” said her courtly companion, “have you been plundering your harvest? You have been dining in?”

“Once,” she said, “twice, three times. I wanted to see if I was tasty. I am,” she said, “ambrosial. I wanted to know if it would be an insult to offer

“This?” said her lustrous companion, running his fingernail across the zipper of her handbag. She scrabbled briefly, it was wedged between her change purse and her date book, but at last she produced it without embarrassment, with a cold dignity, the item crumpled in cling wrap, a pasty purple, bruised and browning at the edges. “Hymenaeus,” said her companion, warming it between his hands. “The son of Aphrodite.” His smile tumbled over her, eager and youthful; she had to brace herself against the weight of it. “You have made your decision?” asked her devoted companion. “This is something that would never have been asked of you.”

She put it to him: wasn’t it true that her rapacious and unremitting hunger was fueled by her feeding? Was it not the case that, having been devoured, she would be full? “Little wendigo,” said her refulgent companion, “it is so. For a time, indeed.”

* * *

Her companion had counseled her to eat, but she would not eat. He came to her apartment bearing gifts: a shapely thigh, a breast fulsome with milk, a smoky, musky phallus; but she merely measured off frugal doses of her blood with a syringe and dispensed them gingerly into the plastic tops of cough syrup bottles, marked off in tablespoons. In the gray, silken evenings they sat comfortably on her couch and sipped in companionable silence. She asked whether her blood did not give him the hungers, but that, he said, was what he liked it for. Disrobing with supple tact, her considerate companion displayed the sliced planes of his buttocks, the half-moons where his torso had been spooned out like a melon. She inquired why it was their fellows had so far declined with gratitude the offering of her own parts. “You’re still such a virgin, little one,” said her loyal companion. She pinned him with sharp eyes. “The flesh eaten still on the living body,” he told her, “there is the union.” “Your finger, our host, my hymen?” she asked. “Fellatios, my sweet,” lisped her companion. She eyed the swell of his forearm with avarice, the muscles coiled in knots under his slippery shirt. “Not me, my darling,” he said, and lifted his remaining finger to tick-tock through the air in drowsy admonishment. “You make your own way; then you come home.”

* * *

She turned and looked full into the stutter of the camera of her colleague. He berated her. “That’s not spontaneous!” He insisted that the project set for the class was for the photographer to be the hunter, and the subject the prey. That made it edgy. “Oh,” she said, “you’re not hunting; you’re farming. Picking off creatures grazing at pasture, dull in contemplation.” She struck a candid pose, lips slightly agape, eyes askew, her expression garbled, transparent and opaque, like a muddy pond. He was discontent. If she stalked the camera, he reasoned, if she had him in her sights, while he had her in his, that skewed the terms of the assignment. “True,” she conceded, “that’s not hunting,” she said; “that’s war.” He snapped her picture. “Caught you!” her new colleague crowed. “Let’s eat,” she proposed. She had forgotten to pack a meal, so he accompanied her through the lunch line, selecting a Charlotte of Bavarian creme and ladyfingers, while she consumed a Manwich.

* * *

She escorted her exquisite companion to the city bay where they sat on the dock, shoes off and pants rolled to the knees, smiling at the disparity of their feet in the water, hers crumpled and dented and damp from her pumps, his slender, prosthetic, dove-gray. The bats in the twilight were reckless and extraordinary; the seagulls had hidden themselves but called out fierce and lonesome, like the whistles of locomotives on the track of the tremulous far horizon. They had purchased small waxed envelopes of sweet, crispy nuts. She swallowed hers nearly whole, while he chewed his bites minutely and spat them out in neat piles on the gravel shore.

Her companion was wistful. The fine engraving of his face looked stony and the quizzical glances and debonair moues by which she knew him seemed painful to execute. She reached in experiment to probe the softness of his cheek and he winced, a tremor of delectable fineness and subtlety.

“Melancholy,” her companion apologized, “a disease not commonly recognized as having its origins in exposure to freshness of air. I am so little accustomed to the pathos of the junction of the land and the sea.”

He was sorrowful, wondering, his chin tucked into the refuge of his collar, his cowlick sprouting in the salt spray like that of a small boy.

“Don’t,” he chastised her, “feel maternal. You can’t imagine the monsters in those deeps. That is so much more dangerous.”

“More dangerous than this?”

“There’s little danger here.”

“Is our safety so assured?”

“Au contraire.” He was amused again, his mouth twisting and curling to savor the joke. “It’s our downfall that’s reliable.”

She was comforted. She wedged herself against him, and he allowed this, though she could feel the warmth on her shoulder where a suture on his breast had wrenched open with the nesting of her weight. The bats were sucked upward into the sky, caught by the magnetic pull of the stars, and the mosquitoes rushed in, enveloping the happy couple, and falling in quivering piles to the dock, all around them.

* * *

She woke at the first stain of sunlight on the face of the sky and slithered to the floor to enter her stretches. They came more easily now that her muscles were drained and limp and she laid her cheek between her legs against the floorboards and sniffed the old gasoline smell of the paint; the gamy traces of her footsteps; a cloying, pulpy odor of breakfast in the apartment below. In the bathroom, she brushed her teeth, tilting her chin back to cup the toothpaste in her mouth, staring down her nose at the mirror. This gave her an accusing look. She made a kind, understanding face that returned to her as a nauseous leer. She giggled. In the shower she ran the water so hot it nearly melted the glue that held her skin to her substructure. Her flesh slipped dangerously over its ligaments. “Oops,” she said.

She had recently treated herself to a French press and, swaddled luxuriously in her old pink robe, she tipped in the beans she’d ground the night before, and punished them with water at a rapid boil. Setting the egg timer to four-and-a-half minutes, she dressed for work: leggings, slacks, two cardigans. She relaxed at the table with granola and berries, slapping back the unfurled and flapping wings of the newspaper. A merry little robin perched on her windowsill, stabbing with its beak at its reflection in the pane.

At work she attacked the keys of her calculator with especial vivacity, tapping her rhythm into the brain of her new colleague. She broke a light sweat, and several pencil leads. The chalky scent of her perspiration, buoyed on a cloud of lily-pale eau de toilette, made its way across the aisle. Her hair was hectic with static. She kept her best three-quarters profile toward the door of her cubicle, and never looked round.

Her colleague invited her to an after-work aperitif. He had a Bloody Mary; she enjoyed a Cinzano. His photography course was finished; he would move on to sculpture in just a few weeks. He displayed the final array of photographs on the tabletop. There she was, blinking, flinching in all her poses. “You see,” he chortled, “it was better when you didn’t know I was taking them. You came at the camera,” he said, gesticulating, “in a flurry of fear. It was kinder, after all, to take you unaware.” She concurred with her new colleague.

He fell asleep with the lights on. If the patchwork of her body, the scars of old decay, the faint sifting and rattling sounds of shriveled things within her, had worried him, he hadn’t shown it, and she would now require the illumination for precision. She had discovered that the area least sensitive to touch was likely to be the back of the shoulders. She inserted the point just above his scapula, turning the flat of the blade parallel to his skin, and cut two sides of a small triangle. Without completing the figure, she lifted the flap, hovering above him in an unwieldy posture, propped on her knuckles, and chewed the skin. She was careful not to sever it, as she did not want to have to cut another piece. The living, she noted, did not have as much taste as the dead. He was tough and elastic. And she could feel the muscles shrinking away from the grind of her teeth. When she had at last reduced the flesh to a small, spongy lump, sticky but bloodless, she yanked it offhe snorted slightlydropped it in the trash can, wrapped in a tissue; drank a glass of water in the crackling light of the bathroom; dabbed on a touch of lipstick; and locked the door behind her as she went.

* * *

She had never eaten so well in her life. They brought her sweet, sticky rice; curried cauliflower delirious with coconut milk; jungles of spaghetti, mired in Alfredo sauce; pinto-bean chili black with molasses. For a long time she would not touch meat, not trusting the source, but then they began to carry in animals roasted whole: a suckling pig, turned on a spit; an infant lamb in a roasting pan, its hooves tucked in trustingly; turkeys spilling out oysters; crabs crusted in ethereal salt; and these she felt safe in consuming. She promised she would sit very still, so they cuffed her only by one foot; and she kept her word, burrowed in somnolent complacence in her featherbed, in an endless drowse, basting herself for her banquet. She was stupefied, seduced, but she knew herself to be tempting, was confident their mouths would water for her. She waited, and every day she grew more ardent.

She had little idea of the passage of time, and when the temperature in her cell began to rise she wondered if summer was finally upon them and if they were saving her, perhaps, for a midsummer feast. The intensification of the heat was, however, accompanied by great commotion in the hall, by the repeated jostling of doors and the thumping of wheels over uneven ground, by the smell of outdoors, lichen and bark and wood sap, and finally, it came to her, a far-away rushing sound, a flickering, hissing, panting growl, like the anger of the surf.

To her beautiful companion, who came every day to see her, she said, “Something is not right.”

Her companion asked if she was weary of waiting. He had lost his nose, and his face, always a ravishment, was now even more moving to her, a stately ruin sliding down the cliff of his skull to the sea beneath. She denied his imputation. She was eager, she said, but not weary. She would do whatever was necessary to be most pleasing to the company. “Only,” she said, “they have built a fire.”

Her faithful companion assented to this conjecture. “A very large one,” he said, “they began it in the dining hall, with the banquet-table, and they have been piling wood on for days.”

“I thought,” she faltered, “that I was not to have been slaughtered first.”

Her companion considered the suave line of his shoe. He tugged sadly at the scraps of his earlobe. At last he said, “You are not held to be quite delicious enough for that.”

“No?” she said.

“Lamentably not,” said her doting companion. “I consider it a piece of great foolishness.”

“You would have eaten me alive?” she beseeched him.

“Oh,” said her companion, “I fear it must be acknowledged that I would not have been able to eat you at all.”

Blackout curtains covered the windows, but she could hear the hammering of the rain against the glass, like a mob of useless fists. “Please help me,” she said.

Her loving companion held her hands between the butts of his wrists. He smiled down at her. “I can’t help you,” he said, “but I won’t hinder you.” And then he took his leave.

She heaved her body from the bed to the floor. The manacle, she discovered, could slide some distance up her leg, but could not be made by any contortion to allow her foot to slip through. Bending her leg at the knee, she grasped her toes with both hands, and stretched forward. The skin at her ankle was tender, and she was not prepared for the juice that shot out and battered the back of her throat in an insistent stream. After her long recumbence, the muscle was creamy and fine. She nibbled all around, using her nails to tear at the meat on the far opposite side of the limb, and flexed her jaw for the bone. But this shattered in her mouth, releasing a puff of powder that mingled unpleasantly with the red paste of the marrow. With the elimination of the foot, the manacle clanked to the ground. Staunching the bleeding took time, however, and she endured this impatiently. At last she was able to lurch to the door of her cell, and propping her body against the wall, to heave it open.

The guests were garlanding the dining-hall fire with armfuls of flowers; burning petals drifted in the air. The thin crystal flutes they held glowed with the champagne inside them, like pale coals. The long limbs of the women waved gracefully in greeting; the men bobbed their heads at her with rough affection. Her own companion was not among them. Across the room, beside the door, the eyes of the manservant were black in the black smoke. She hobbled in his direction. At this movement, a cry went up, and the guests began applauding. The champagne slapped the sides of the flutes in cheerful chimes and the celebration lashed across the room, and all the company danced in a great spiral, like a whirlpool sucking through the house. The eyes of the guests were brilliant, adoring; their faces were tilted up, innocent, anticipatory, as if to be kissed. Their delirium raised a dazzling bright wind in the hall: she breathed it in: odorless; swallowed it: tasteless; trapped it in her lungs, where it disappeared, weightless. She stood on her leg and observed the guests as, fingers interlaced, hair tangled together, their breaths muddling in each other’s mouths, their exultant cries in each other’s ears, they danced and danced. She saw that in an instant the floor would collapse beneath the force of their joy and their affection for her.

Micaela Morrissette is a senior editor of the journal Conjunctions, where her stories have appeared. A fiction reviewer for Jacket and Rain Taxi, she is also the editor of a symposium of multimedia works investigating the poet John Ashbery’s domestic environments. She is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize and has been reprinted in Best American Fantasy. At present, she’s collaborating with visual artist Joshua Pelletier on a mythology of the Rat King. A native of West Virginia, she lives in Brooklyn, New York.

“Creature”

Friday, January 9th, 2009

CREATURE
by Ramsey Shehadeh

copyright © 2008 / May not be reproduced without permission

(from Weird Tales #349, March/April 2008)

And so came Creature out of the wasteland and into the city, bouncing from hilltop to hilltop like a bulbous ballerina skipping across the knuckles of a great hand. He was big as the moon and black as the night, and he came crashing into the city like a silent meteor. The cityfolk watched his approach with wide eyes and open mouths, and then scattered like leaves.

The sun sat smudged and pale behind a grey smear of cloud, and the air stank of scat and putrefaction. But Creature said: “What a fine day it is!” Though he did not say it, of course, he thought it, and so the cityfolk thought it too. And when he released a great bolus of happiness into the air, they paused in their desperate flight, and smiled, and thought: “What a fine day it is!”

Creature surveyed the sea of smiles around him, and was well pleased. He rolled along, growing and shrinking and flattening and widening as he went, dispensing false joy to the destitute and the hopeless, the desperate and the sad. They lined his path like parade-watchers, caught helplessly in his spell.

All except for the Little Girl. He found her standing in the middle of the road, gazing up at him with an expression of puzzled reserve.

She touched his yielding black skin, and said: “Who are you?”

“I am Creature,” said Creature. “You are quite happy to see me.” Although he did not say it, of course, he thought it, and so the Little Girl thought it too.

She smiled. “Will you tell me a story?”

“Certainly!” said Creature. The sky rained ash and soot, and in the grimy dusk of midday the doomed people of the city rediscovered their despair and slunk back into their slow nowhere peregrinations. “Would you like to hear a happy story, or a sad story?”

“A happy one,” said the Little Girl. She was slumped and emaciated, and her features sagged against her bones like melting wax. But her eyes were bright, and the mouth in her face was smiling. Creature looked inside her, and saw the scars where her childhood had been, and felt a cold thrill of sadness. He shied away from it, and began.

“Once upon a time, there was a race of beings called the Lumplorians. Unlike most peoples, the Lumplorians came in all different shapes and sizes. Some of them were tall and bent at right angles, like an L; some were round like cookies, with arms sticking out of the tops of their bodies and eyes in the middle of their bellies. Some undulated like meandering rivers, and some were perfectly square.”

The Little Girl giggled. “That’s silly.”

“Nevertheless,” said Creature. “This was the nature of the Lumplorian. And because they were all so different from one another, because no Lumplorian looked like any other Lumplorian, there was no bond between them. This made them sad, because they were all alone. And then it made them angry, because they hated their sadness, and blamed each other for it. There were wars between the Lumplorians, a million million tiny wars, because it soon came to pass that every Lumplorian was at war with every other Lumplorian.”

“This is boring,” said the Little Girl. “Can we play now?”

“But it is still a sad story,” said Creature, who knew that there are no happy stories or sad stories, only a single tale that stretches across the breadth of time, and happy or sad depends on which part of it you choose to tell.

“That’s ok,” said the Little Girl. “I don’t care about stories anyway.”

“Very well,” said Creature, and extruded two arms from the front of his body and picked her up. “What would you like to play?”

“Let’s play Find Mommy,” said the Little Girl.

“A capital idea!” said Creature. “How does one play Find Mommy?”

“You look for Mommy,” said the Little Girl, frowning.

“Of course,” said Creature. “Where should we begin?”

The Little Girl pointed toward the Pitted Bridge, which spanned the River Sludge. “There,” she said.

“Climb on, then,” said Creature, and handed her up to a second set of arms, which were emerging a little farther up his body, and they handed her in turn to a third set, higher still, and so on, so that the Little Girl rose toward his summit on a rippling wave of arms.

“And we’re off!” said Creature, and surged toward the bridge, undulating around rubble and bridging over chasms and puddling through potholes. Ruined buildings crowded in on either side, staring blindly down at them through shattered windows.

They were nearly there when a black bubblecar, squat as a spider, silent as a whisper, turned the corner in front of them, and stopped. A gun rose from its roof and trained itself on them. Its doors opened, lifting like angular wings, and two blackclads stepped out wearing visors that reflected Creature’s shimmering undulate in their mirrored and opaque surfaces.

The first blackclad leveled his weapon at Creature and said: “Halt!” Creature halted. He looked at their weapons, and felt something barbed and murderous rising in the banished parts of his mind.

“Identify yourself!” barked the second blackclad.

Creature extruded a mouth, and said: “I am Creature.”

“Release the girl,” said the second blackclad, “and put your hands on your head.” He said this with some hesitation, because the girl was clearly the one holding onto Creature, and because, in his current form, Creature had neither hands, nor head to put them on.

But Creature devolved into an oil slick, gently lowering the Little Girl to the street. And then he seeped into the cracks in the ground, and was gone.

The Little Girl got to her feet, looking warily at the two men. Fear showed plain on her face. All children knew the dangers of encountering the blackclads, who despise unattached urchinry, and round them up at every opportunity, and ferry them to the Orphan Reprocessing Facility in the center of the city, from which no child had ever emerged.

“You,” said the first man, “will come with us.”

The Little Girl shook her head, and took a step back.

The first man, who was fond of saying Halt!, pointed his weapon at her and said: “Halt!”

And the girl halted, but not because the blackclad told her to. No. She halted because the bubblecar behind the two men was rising into the air on a surge of black foam. It was rising, and it was rising, and then it was falling. There was a great crash, and the car was lying on its side, where the two men had been.

The black foam fell down to the ground, slapping against the torn tarmac like hard rain, then rose again as ten flat featureless figures with perfectly circular heads and rounded, linked arms, like cut-out paper men. They stood in a circle around the smashed car, their heads bowed, murmuring wordless elegies.

After a few moments, the figures flowed into each other, and became one figure, a giant cauldron that stood on two spindly legs. “I have done a bad thing,” said Creature.

“Those were bad men,” said the Little Girl, who had seen many terrible things in her short life.

“Nevertheless,” said Creature, and sighed. He trundled over to the Little Girl, and unwound an arm and took her hand. “Let us proceed more discreetly.”

* * *

Creature was born soon after the apocalypse, when the changes beset the world. He’d seeped out of his mother and spilled to the ground, a slick black rill in the muck of the afterbirth, and lay helpless at her feet, listening to the screams. He’d hurt her, clinging and raking and tearing at her body as it tried to expel him. Even then, he knew the horrors that awaited him in the world outside his mother.

The sun was well below the horizon when she died. Creature watched his father, an emaciated halfman in tattered rags, kneeling over her, sobbing quietly. He lowered himself to the ground and pressed his half-body against hers, so that they became one body, three arms and three legs and three eyes. Two of the eyes stared away blankly into nothing, and the third wept.

When the darkness became absolute, Creature slunk away into the night, an amorphous puddle of shadow.

At first, he foraged among the weeds and the thorn-brambles, but he soon learned to lie in wait for more substantial fare. He discovered the secrets of his body: how to flatten it into a dark patch of night, how to rise and thicken and envelop, to crush and consume. Everything in this world seemed bent on his destruction, and so he grew feral, and learned to cultivate savagery. All that had been human about him receded, save one image: the face of the mother he had never seen, smiling at him as she never had.

As he grew, legends sprung up around him, becoming more fantastical with each telling: he was an animate piece of the night, an amorphous devil, a thing of pure evil that consigned the souls of his victims to the infernal realms of hell. The men who lived on the edge of the waste gathered into great hunting parties and came after him, but always to no avail, because he had discovered another talent: he could see their thoughts as if they were his own. He could divine their numbers and their tactics, their plans and stratagems, their feints and their traps before they came within a mile of him. He thwarted all of their efforts, and then he killed them, and then he ate them.

But his ability to read their thoughts was ultimately more curse than blessing. He became entranced by the strange things that he encountered in their minds: wondrous, inscrutable feelings like joy and hope and love and compassion and humility and peace. To be sure, they were rare artifacts in these hard men, but all he had ever known was grief and pain and fear and hatred, and these new sensations, though strange and troubling, were beautiful. He saw the face of his mother in them, and understood that she was their talisman, their fortress and their apotheosis.

He found that he could not destroy creatures who were capable of such wonders. He lurked instead at the edge of their encampments, drinking them in, savoring them. And, one day, quite by accident, he discovered that he could manipulate them, too; he learned how to manufacture happiness in their minds, to sow accord, to soothe despair.

But he could do none of these things in his own mind, try as he might.

And so he conceived of his plan. He would enter the city, and heal its people. He would revive their hopes, scatter their sadness, stoke their love. And then he would wend himself into the fabric of their lives, and bask in the reflected glow of their joy. He would make himself whole again, through the coerced love of the men who despised and feared him.

* * *

The pitted bridge rose up from the banks of the Sludge like a leaden rainbow, but plunged abruptly near the midpoint of its arc into the dark waters. Two hundreds yards farther along, it rose from the river again and continued its journey to the opposite bank. Sagging ropes spanned the interval between the halves; from his position on the shore, Creature could just make out tiny figures shimmying back and forth across the gulf, like beads on an abacus.

“All the way to the end,” said the Little Girl from her perch at Creature’s summit.

Creature stepped onto the bridge, and began his ascent. He moved along a narrow avenue bisected by a fading, dashed yellow line, between dense thickets of shanties, reeking and ramshackle and piled up against the rails of the bridge.

The bridge’s residents stopped their milling to stare. Eyes appeared at slit windows, heads poked out of curtained doorways.

The Little Girl waved at a small boy with long thin arms that spindled out from his naked torso like spiderlegs. The boy waved back, beaming. “Hi Ugly!”

“Hi Rat!” said the Little Girl, and laughed. “That’s my friend Rat,” she said. “We call him Rat because he’s always going in dark holes to get food.”

“And why does he call you Ugly?”

“Because that’s my name.”

“Surely not,” said Creature. “Who would give such a pretty little girl a name like that?”

The Little Girl did not answer. Creature quickened his pace, because the crowds were thickening on either side of him, and he felt the knife edge of hostility touching the skin of his mind. He sent out balms of goodwill; but he was nearly spent now, and his thin, paltry reassurances served only to dull the rising malice.

“Mommy,” said the Little Girl.

“Do you see her, Child?” said Creature, slowing.

“No. Mommy called me Ugly.”

“Ah.” Creature resumed his pace, and struggled to find the thing to say. “Well, I’m sure she did so in jest.”

“She said it’s not safe to be a pretty little girl. She said she used to be a pretty little girl too and bad things happened to her and made her wish she wasn’t.”

A feral dog shot out of the narrow space between two shanties and leapt at them, snarling. Creature extended a protoplasmic tentacle and caught it and held it in midair, speaking tenderness and peace into its mind until it grew calm. Then he lowered it to the ground and released it and molded the edge of a tentacle into a hand the color of obsidian and stroked it behind its ears. It sat on its haunches and watched them pass, sniffing at the air in their wake.

“She wouldn’t let me go far away from the house,” said the Little Girl. “And after Daddy left she didn’t let me out at all. She paid a nice man named Bickle to watch the house when she had to leave but then Bickle didn’t wake up one day because of the knife in him and she had to stay with me all the time, because she said she couldn’t trust anyone else.”

A burly and bearded and shirtless man stepped into their path. Creature slowed, then stopped. The man was fat and large and pink and hairless. He held a book before him, like a talisman, and said: “Leave this place, Demon. You are not welcome here.”

“That’s Klam,” whispered the Little Girl. “He’s a crazy person.”

Creature touched the man’s mind, and recoiled. It was all brambles and barbed wire, and it hurt him just to look at it. He said: “I mean you no harm, sir. I am merely escorting this young lady to her mother.”

“The harlot has no place in this House of God,” said Klam.

This made Creature angry, and the anger frightened him. It was an ugly and bitter and terrible thing. And so he pressed it into the bowels of his mind, and said: “Please do not speak ill of the child. She has harmed no one.”

“Her existence,” said Klam, “harms us all.”

“Remove yourself from our path, sir,” said Creature, his patience suddenly spent. “Do so immediately.”

“I do not fear you, Demon. You cannot hurt me.”

“I can hurt you in ways that you cannot possibly imagine,” said the anger, before Creature could stop it. “I can make you long for mere agony.”

And then Klam reached behind him, and drew a shotgun from its holster, and fired.

Creature reacted quickly, bristling into a sudden forest of pseudopods. The onrushing cloud of metal would not harm him, of course, but the Little Girl was only flesh and sinew, delicate and frangible. He lashed out with his extrusions, moving faster than thought, catching the bullets, redirecting them into the central mass of his body.

All but one.

He felt it slip between his fingers and pass over his summit, saw it pierce the flesh of the girl’s arm. Heard her scream. Felt her pain as his own.

And then, while he was not looking, the anger rose.

He softened his midsection and moved forward and subsumed Klam into his body and then walled him off into a small compartment, and then shrunk the compartment into a box the size of a coffin, and then shrunk it again, and again, breaking Klam in steady stages. There was a time when he would have prolonged Klam’s death, savoring his screams, but that time was past. He crushed him quickly, and heard his thoughts wink out.

The Little Girl was crying, quietly. He lowered her to the ground and examined her wound. The bullet had nibbled at the edge of her shoulder, but had not entered. He pressed himself against it, to stanch

the flow of blood, and said: “All is well, Little Girl.”

They were alone now, all the bridge’s denizens having retreated to their shacks. “Come,” said Creature. “Let us continue.” He took the Little Girl’s hand, and they moved through the silence.

After some time, the girl pointed, and whispered: “That’s where we lived.”

Creature turned his gaze to a collapsed structure of wood and canvas, and then liquified and flowed into it. He found torn shreds of paper, a tattered rug, a toothless comb, scraps of clothing, an empty frame affixed to the canvas; nothing more. He came out again, and said: “There is no one here.”

“Oh,” said the Little Girl.

“Do you remember where you last saw your mother?”

“Yeah,” she said, and turned toward the bridge’s summit. Creature followed in her wake. “She woke up really early yesterday,” said the Little Girl, “and went outside. She was trying to be quiet, but I heard her so I got up too, and then I followed her.”

“Was she alone?”

“Yeah,” said the Little Girl, and stopped at the edge of bridge, where it fell away into the brown roil of the river Sludge. “She came here. I thought she was maybe waiting for someone, so I waited too, hiding behind Mr Bickle’s house.” She pointed at a ramshackle hut behind her. “But she just stood there for a long time, and no one else came, and then she looked back at our house and then she jumped in the river.”

Creature was silent for some time. He said: “I see.”

“I waited here for a while, and then I went down off the bridge to the river and looked for her. But she wasn’t there, and I didn’t want to come back up here on my own.”

“Of course.”

“So I just started walking.” She looked up, toward Creature’s summit. “And I found you.”

Creature stared at the river. Flotillas of muck and jetsam flowed along, teams of wreckage, bobbing and sinking. He said: “Well.” In truth, he did not know what to say. The Little Girl affected him in ways he did not understand.

There was a stir behind them, then, small bits of sound running together: curtains drawn aside, shuffling feet, stage whispers. He turned, and saw them: the people of the bridge, massing.

They stood tremulous and resolute and afraid, clasping the detritus of their lives in the hands: long boards with nails hammered into their ends, filed metal rods, rusting butcher knives, ancient firearms. It was a sad and ragtag gathering, and, examining it, Creature could muster nothing more than pity. Not even the anger would rouse itself for this dim spectacle.

A man stepped forward. He was dressed in scraps and tatters, and the left side of his face twitched with a flickering palsy. He said: “We don’t want you here, Monster.”

He could have killed them all, of course. He could have crushed them against one other, plunged through their mouthes into their bodies and eaten them from the inside, broken the ground at their feet and sent them hurtling into the river. Instead, he moved to the edge of the bridge, beside the Little Girl, and said: “It is time for us to go.”

“Where?”

“Someplace that is not here.” He folded himself into a broad sickle-moon concavity. “Come into me.”

She paused, then stepped onto his body.

“It will be very dark for a while, Little Girl. Do not be afraid.”

“I’m not afraid,” she said, and lay down.

And so Creature shaped himself a hollow globe, sealing the Little Girl inside of him, and rolled over the edge of the bridge.

The brown surface of the river rose to meet him, and he fell into its murk with a great crash, sending up a high torrent of muddy water. They sank slowly into its depths, where the darkness was absolute, and let the current draw them downriver.

When he sensed that the air trapped inside of him was growing scarce, he rose to the surface of the river, unfolding like an opening hand, and fashioned himself into a raft. The Little Girl lay asleep in its center, curled into a tiny ball. He raised a portion of himself into a pillow, and arched a blanket of himself over her body. And they floated thus through the city, with the darkness gathering steadily about them.

* * *

The little girl awoke at dawn, just as the sun was heaving itself over the horizon, a pale shapeless luminescence in the grey soup of cloud. She stretched, and looked around.

“Sir?” she said.

“I am here, Little Girl,” said Creature.

“What happened to the city?”

“We have left it.”

They were floating through the wasteland now, across a dead plain still scarred with the ravages of the last war: trench furrows had been torn out of the earth, as if by great scythes, and many of the trees were burned stumps, or leafless and shattered skeletons. The air was thick with heat and heavy with moisture. The girl mopped sweat off her brow and surveyed the river. Tourette crabs on either bank followed their progress, spewing unbroken streams of profanity. Jellyfowl floated above them in the soft eddies of breeze, trailing curtains of barbed streamers. A troupe of the soulless trudged the banks, following the scent of life.

The girl lay down and said: “I’ve never been outside the city.”

“The waste is no safe place for little girls.”

“Is this your home?”

Creature paused. He had never thought of it as home. “It is where I live, yes.”

“Aren’t you afraid all alone out here?”

“Not in the way you mean,” he said. He had never feared the wasteland, really. But he did not wish to become one of its thoughtless, feral denizens. That, he feared.

She lapsed back into silence, and Creature reached into her mind, and found only sadness. He said: “Do you want to go back to the city, Little Girl?”

She shook her head, not lifting it off his surface. He saw that this was both true, and false. She despised the city, but it was the only home she’d ever known. An intractable dilemma.

Creature prepared a bolus of happiness, the largest he could fashion, and filled it with bright sunlight and green fields, fairytale princesses and caring mothers and endless summers.

The Little Girl said: “Sir?”

“Yes, Little Girl.”

“I wish you’d come before. You’re nice, like Mr Bickle. I think Mommy would have let you take care of me. And then maybe she wouldn’t have gone away.”

Again, Creature found himself without words. They floated on in silence.

“I heard her talking to Mr Bickle once, when she thought I was asleep. She said I made her old. She said that worrying about me all the time was killing her.”

“Even mothers say things they do not mean, sometimes,” said Creature, maneuvering himself around a whirling funnel of piranha clownfish.

“Do you have a mother?”

“I did, yes. She left me a long time ago.”

“What was she like?”

Creature did not answer at once. He had two mothers, really: the one he had inhabited for nine months, who’d borne him and then died; and the gentle woman who inhabited him, the light that led him out of his bestiality, that banished his darkness. In many ways, he was glad that he had never known the real mother; it left him free to manufacture the unconditional love of the false one.

“I wish I could tell you, Little Girl. I do not know. But I do know that she watches over me still, and protects me.”

The Little Girl turned onto her back, and looked up at the sky. “Your Mommy sounds nice too.”

Creature held the bolus of happiness at the threshold on her consciousness, but did not insert it. Its effect would be temporary, and false, an ice sculpture in the desert.

“Sir?”

“Yes, Little Girl.”

“Who’s going to take care of me now?”

“I do not know. Do you have any uncles or aunts?”

She shook her head.

“Brothers or sisters?”

She shook her head.

“Grandparents?”

She shook her head.

“Then perhaps,” he said, almost shyly, “you should stay with me. Until you are old enough to take care of yourself.”

“Out here?”

“Yes. It’s not so bad, really, once you’ve grown accustomed to it. Let me show you.”

The soulless were well behind them, and the crabs had given up the chase. Creature drifted toward the bank, then rose out of the river as an obelisk, lengthening as he went, thrusting the Little Girl high above the skeletal trees. She squealed, first in fright, then in delight. He extruded eight legs from his base and skittered onto the bank, a tall spider column swaying gently in the freshening breeze.

“I can see everything!” cried the Little Girl. “I can see the city and the hills and the river and everything!”

They walked on. A clod of scuttle earth, the size and shape of a mattress, rose from the ground and shambled out of their path, raining worms from its underside; in the distance, two clouds of semaphore ravens spoke in shifting patterns; a herd of wild rats stampeded across a faraway bramble meadow; a flotilla of sailfish navigated the deeps of the distant oxblood lake.

The Little Girl watched with widening eyes. “This place is weird.”

“No stranger than your city, Little Girl. The strangeness differs only in its particulars.”

“Where’s your house?”

“There is no house.” Silence. He lifted the impression of a face onto the flat surface of his summit, and looked at the Little Girl. “Although we could build one. A large house, if you like, with many rooms.”

Her expression was composed, and very serious. She was, suddenly, far older than her years. “Can you let me down, Sir?”

“Certainly.” He shrank into a disk the size of manhole cover, and, when the girl stepped off, rose into his cauldron shape. “Are you hungry?”

She shrugged, and said: “Sir?”

“Yes, Little Girl.”

“Is my Mommy dead?”

Creature paused. He said: “Yes. I fear that she is.”

The girl was silent for a moment. She said: “I wish she wasn’t.”

Creature had nothing to say to this. They stood in silence, listening to the wind rattle the skeletal branches of the trees, the river lap lazily against its banks.

“Sir?”

“Yes, Little Girl.”

“My name’s Melanie. You can call me Melanie.”

He hesitated, and felt the dim stirrings of something unfamiliar in his mind: fear, perhaps, or hope, or dread, or joy. Or none of these things. Or all of them. He said: “Melanie,” and extruded an arm, and took her hand. And together they watched the flocks of semaphore ravens converge on the horizon, signaling frantically to one another across the gulf of sky.

By day, Ramsey Shehadeh is a mild-mannered Java programmer. But when darkness falls, he sheds his beige corporate uniform, doffs his hat, removes his glasses, and becomes a mild-mannered Java programmer who writes the occasional short story. He enjoys hanging out with his wife, steeping himself in ’80s nostalgia, and devising increasingly desperate ways to prevent his beagle from eating him. You can find him at http://doodleplex.com. This is his first published story.