Rank #1: PseudoPod 599: The Boy with the Glass Eyes
- Author : J.L. Flannery
- Narrator : Paul S. Jenkins
- Host : Alasdair Stuart
- Audio Producer : Marty Perrett
- Discuss on Forums
PseudoPod 599: The Boy with the Glass Eyes is a PseudoPod original.
The Boy With The Glass Eyes
By J.L. Flannery
My son arrived in a brown cardboard package, no bigger than a shoebox.
I lifted the lid to see him lying there flat on his back, eyes closed, as though he were asleep.
‘Go on,’ my Boss said, ‘lift him up.’
Nervously, I lifted him up out of the box and cradled him in my arms. His skin was velvet. His smell; pure talcum powder. I looked down at his sleeping face and put on a smile, pretending the nausea that was rising in my throat didn’t exist.
My Boss, Mr Yamamoto, stood staring, waiting for me to react.
‘It’s incredibly lifelike,’ I said in Japanese.
He nodded, ‘Just like a real baby. Go ahead. Power it up.’
I hesitated a moment. What on earth would Alice say when I bought this thing home with me?
‘It’s a great privilege to be chosen,’ Mr Yamamoto said smiling, as if he could sense my unease.
I nodded, ‘Yes, I know. Thank you. I’m very grateful about it, honest I am. It’s just…’
‘It’s just what?’
‘Nothing,’ I said, ‘it’s nothing,’ and I held down the button on the base of its spine and the baby woke up.
Slowly, his eyes opened and he turned his head to look at me with his blue eyes made of glass.
‘The baby will be on at all times,’ Mr Yamamoto explained, ‘the light at the base of his spine will glow green to tell you its on. He’ll automatically go into shutdown mode at night, once the room is dark. If you need to, you can force shutdown mode by putting him back in his box.’
I nodded, but I wasn’t really listening. The baby I held in my arms was smiling at me, a big gummy smile. As far as AI go, this was the most remarkable I’d seen. It looked like a real baby. It’s skin felt soft like a baby’s. Hell, it even had the same scent as one. I was fascinated and disturbed in equal measure.
‘Your wife will enjoy having him for the weekend, I’m sure,’ Mr Yamamoto said, smiling proudly.
‘Oh yes,’ I lied, ‘I’m sure it will make her very happy.’
It was my idea to move to Tokyo. At the time my wife, Alice, wasn’t so keen.
If you have never been there, the experience is hard to describe but I’ll try my best: neon buildings grow out of the concrete, stretching up to reach the sky. Zebra crossings zigzag in all directions, whilst people in their thousands march across in total silence. Cartoon characters stare back at you everywhere you look: on a subway pass, on manhole covers, on shop signs, on crisp packets and tourist leaflets. Boys wear eyeliner and t-shirts emblazoned with nonsensical English. Girls wear ghostly white make up and Bo-Peep dresses, giggling like porcelain dolls come to life. Dogs wear bows and sequin outfits. In one corner of Tokyo, Roppongi Hills, a giant spider stands keeping watch over the city. In Odiba; a giant gundam robot. Toilets flush themselves. Hotels rooms are space age capsules. Stepping into Tokyo feels like stepping into the future.
We visited there when we first got married and I’m pretty sure Alice loved it as much as I did. After visiting Tokyo, England lost its shine. It was difficult to hide our irritation at people talking loudly on public transport, the lateness of just about everything, and the general selfishness of people. When it was cold and rainy at home, we longed for the sun and cherry blossoms of Japan.
And, of course, we’d just lost the baby.
Jasper was only two weeks old when he died.
Alice gave birth to him at only twenty-eight weeks and if I’m honest, I knew as soon as I saw him that he was going to die. He looked too tiny, too fragile to live. I would sit for hours at his bedside, just watching him lying there in the incubator, struggling to breathe in. Every time he breathed he made this awful rasping noise. The doctors said even if he had survived, he would have had respiratory problems for the rest of his life.
The first time I got to hold our baby in my arms, he was already dead. We dressed him in the blue flannel sleepsuit Alice had bought for him and we took photos together as if he was still alive, and we were a ‘normal’ family. Jasper looks just like a doll cradled in our arms.
Depression washed over the both of us for a long time, but for Alice it was much worse. I was scared she was going to let grief wash her away completely. She refused to get out of bed. She cried all day long. She blamed herself for Jasper’s death even though it was nobody’s fault.
For a while I was scared to leave her alone for fear she would hurt herself, but gradually with time and with medication, her grief began to ease a little and that was when I suggested we came to Tokyo.
It was meant to be a new beginning.
A way to forget.
The night I bought the AI home, I couldn’t bring myself to tell Alice straight away. I left the baby in its box in the hallway of our apartment whilst I thought of a tactful way to break the news. I waited until we’d both finished eating dinner before I told her about him. She listened to my explanation and instead of bursting into tears like I thought she would, she seemed enthusiastic about the idea.
‘Well, bring it inside,’ she said smiling, ‘you can’t just leave him outside, John. What if your Boss found out you’d left his prototype in an apartment hallway?’
So, I bought the box inside and placed it on the kitchen table.
She looked back at me and nodded.
As soon as I lifted the lid, I saw the look of surprise in her eyes. She was expecting Astro Boy, not a doll so realistic it could pass for a real human baby.
She reached out slowly to stroke its soft blond hair, and the baby writhed and held up its arms. Alice jumped back from the box, afraid, but then she moved forward again and picked him up, laughing nervously at herself for having been startled.
The baby gurgled in her arms.
‘Wow John! This is unbelievable,’ she said.
It was the first time in eighteen months I had seen her smile like that.
I thought then, that it would all work out okay after all.
But I was wrong.
That night, as the sun set and the room grew dim, the baby did just as Mr Yamomoto said it would and powered down. It’s movements slowly stiffened and eventually came to a stop. I watched Alice’s face change from contentment to panic and I quickly snatched the baby away from her and carried it over to its box.
‘It’s okay. It’s meant to do that,’ I reassured her, ‘it’s powering down for the night.’
But as I stood putting the baby in the box with my back turned, I felt that feeling of nausea return again. I knew what Alice was thinking: when the baby went still and stiff, it looked as though it was dead. It looked just like Jasper.
I put the lid on the box and turned to her, ‘Are you okay having him here?’
‘Sure, I’m fine. I was just scared for a moment that I’d broken it that’s all. He’s beautiful John. He’s just so real.’
I moved towards her and pulled her close to my chest. Her hair smelled of cherry shampoo and I kissed the top of her head. She looked back up at me with those big brown doe eyes of hers and we kissed.
I’m not going to give all the juicy details of what happened next, but we had sex for the first time in weeks and I finally relaxed, wondering how I could have hesitated in bringing this baby home.
I woke up in the night. The clock said 3.30am and the other side of the bed was cold. Alice was missing.
I got up and found her, sat downstairs at the table in the dark, her back turned to me.
‘Ali, you alright?’
She jumped round, ‘Shit John! Don’t sneak up like that. You scared me to death.’
‘Well, I’m not the one roaming the house in the middle of the night. You scared me, shuffling about down here.’
She sighed, ‘I couldn’t sleep. I keep hearing it crying.’
I shook my head, ‘It doesn’t cry Alice. Mr Yamamoto said the developers thought it might put people off.’
She still looked unconvinced so I stood behind her, rubbing her shoulders the way she liked me to, and tried to reassure her.
‘Babies cries are as loud as a road drill. If it cried, which it can’t, I would have heard it too.’
‘Are you sure? I swear John, I heard it.’
I’d already explained to her how it worked. I couldn’t see what else there was left to say. The baby couldn’t cry – end of story. I stopped rubbing her shoulders.
‘It must be someone else’s kid. Next door’s maybe. You know how thin the walls are here. Come on Ali, its late. Just close the damn lid and come back to bed.’
I watched her get up from her seat and close the lid of the box. I followed behind her as she climbed the stairs.
I was knackered the following morning; and like most people, when I’m tired, I’m easily irritated.
I took a shower and got dressed, leaving Alice to take the baby out of the box and make breakfast. When I came downstairs, I found she had taken the red sports bag from the garage and was knelt down with it unzipped, its guts spilling out onto the tatami mat floor.
I knew what she was looking for in there: the blue flannel sleepsuit Jasper had worn. I couldn’t bear to see it again.
‘Why’d you bring these with you? I thought you had thrown those things away,’ I snapped.
But Alice didn’t look up. She was transfixed by the contents of the bag and was pulling them out one after another, like a magician pulling never-ending handkerchiefs from a hat.
‘Those ‘things’ were our son’s clothes that he never got to wear. Of course, I kept them. Why wouldn’t I?’
I stood by, watching her sifting through them as she pulled out each piece of clothing and held it up to inspect each piece for its suitability. All the time, the baby writhed around next to her on the mat, like a baby that was alive.
It dawned on me how absurd the whole thing was. She was sorting out our dead baby’s clothes for a doll and saw nothing wrong with it at all. I could have killed for a cigarette right then, only I knew she would start going on at me if I lit one up in the flat.
‘Ah, here it is!’
She held up the blue flannel sleepsuit.
‘You’re not really going to dress it in that are you?’ I could hear my voice shaking as I spoke.
‘Why not?’ She said.
I wanted to say things like, ‘because it’s wrong. Because that way, you’ll never let go of the past. Because we both know they belonged to Jasper and this is just a lifeless, soulless doll that could never replace our baby boy.’
But of course, I never said anything.
Maybe you think I was being unfair. After all, she was a woman who’d lost a child. What was the point of making a fuss? Its only clothes, right?
In Japan, some believe that everything you own has an imprint of your soul on it, as if some part of you rubs off on it when you touch it. Even clothes. That’s why you won’t find a charity shop anywhere in Tokyo. It’s also one of the reasons why nobody steals anything. Why would you want to own something that had traces of someone else’s soul all over it?
I’ll give you an example: there’s a famous doll called Okiku in Mennenji temple in Iwamizawa, whose owner died in the 1930’s from fever, when she was just three years old. Because the girl carried Okiku everywhere with her, it’s believed that the girl’s spirit possessed the doll the second she died.
But that’s not the worst of it: to this day the doll’s hair keeps on growing. Growing as if the doll were alive and breathing.
So to use your dead child’s clothes to dress a toy…well, you can see how that might be a problem for some people. For me.
After the disagreement over the sleepsuit, I went for a walk around the block to get some air. And by ‘air’ I mean ‘smoke a cigarette.’ I knew how Alice hated my smoking and so I held each drag of the cigarette deep in my lungs until it burned, and when I exhaled, I puffed out smoke rings in defiance.
When I got back to the apartment, I was expecting her to smell the smoke on me and start another fight, but I could hear her in the bathroom retching, and my petty rebellion was quickly forgotten. I felt guilty now that I had left her, even for that short amount of time.
I knocked on the bathroom door, “Ali, you okay?’
‘Yeah, I’m fine.’
She opened the door, her eyes watery and her hair unkempt.
‘I dunno what caused that. I was just sat there with the baby and all of a sudden…’
I pulled her close and kissed the top of her head.
‘I’m sorry I was such an asshole earlier.’
She wriggled out of my grasp, ‘It doesn’t matter. Hey you should see the baby now. It started sitting up while you were gone.’
I don’t know why this bothered me so much. It was an AI after all, which meant was meant to learn and develop and grow. Just like a real baby. Only real babies don’t sit up after just a day.
We went together into the living room and there it was just sat on the mat playing with a ball Alice found in the garage. The sports bag was gone. But it was wearing the blue sleepsuit.
When I walked into the room, it’s head turned and its glassy eyes looked right at me.
‘Amazing, isn’t it?’ Alice knelt down and starting using that baby voice women always reserve for the ears of tiny puppies and small children, ‘aren’t you a clever one? Mama’s special boy.’
The hairs on my neck prickled to watch my wife talk to it like that, as if it was real. Mr Yamamoto had been right; childless women the world over would fall in love with this AI.
And then it dawned on me: after all this time trying to prove to my Boss that I wasn’t just another worthless foreigner, all I had had to do to prove my worth was bring this baby home and tell the company it was a success. I might even get a promotion.
And yet, something about the whole thing made me uneasy.
When Alice gets a craving for something, there’s nothing that will stop her until she gets it. That day she was desperate for some freshly baked donuts.
‘I dunno Ali,’ I moaned, ‘it’s pissing down outside. Can’t we go another day?’
‘You stay here,’ she said tying up her laces. You and the baby can get to know one another.’
When she was gone, the baby gave a giggle. I picked it up and put it on my lap. It didn’t feel like a real baby; it was too heavy. I tipped it upside down and held it by the leg to see what it would do, but it began to frown, so I quickly turned it the right way up. Then I felt stupid for being momentarily manipulated into thinking the damn thing was real.
‘You’re just a piece of metal in there,’ I said to it.
The baby wrinkled its nose at me.
‘You’re not real.’
It gave a grin.
Alice returned with a box of six donuts and she ate them all, one after another.
‘Do you remember the last time I craved these? It was when I was pregnant. Isn’t that weird.’
‘Yeah honey, I guess it is.’
I suppose the alarm bells should have been ringing then. Vomiting. Cravings. It was like that AI was causing her to relive the pregnancy all over again. I started thinking of how I could get out of this. Perhaps I should call my Boss. Just explain that we had lost a baby and that my wife has had severe anxiety and depression and that this could possibly bring about a relapse.
I did think about doing it.
But then I saw how happy she looked.
So I didn’t.
That night, Alice woke me up.
‘I can hear him John,’ she kept saying, ‘can’t you hear him? He’s crying. He’s making that rasping noise. Just like Jasper did.’
I didn’t really know what to say. I mean, I couldn’t hear the noises she claimed she could. And I’d already explained it couldn’t cry. It was impossible. It hadn’t been programmed to.
I held her tight in my arms, ‘Hush now Alice. It’s okay. You must’ve had a bad dream that’s all. Listen.’
She lay there in my arms, both of us listening to the silence.
‘See,’ I said, ‘it was just a dream.’
She wiped away her tears and I stroked her hair until she seemed calmer.
‘I’m so sorry John,’ she whined, ‘I just don’t know what’s happening to me.’
‘You know, if its too much having the baby here, I could power it down. My Boss wouldn’t even have to know.’
‘No,’ she answered far too eagerly, ‘don’t switch him off, John. I’m fine, honestly. It’s like you said, it was just a dream, that’s all.’
She turned onto her side and I lay down on my back, staring at the ceiling, waiting for her to drift off. It was making her ill again, it was clear for anyone to see. Once I heard her snoring, I started to relax a little. I lay there for a while thinking of what to do.
And that’s when I heard it too.
For a moment I thought I was imagining it. I looked over at Alice but she was fast asleep.
There it was again.
The sound of a baby crying in our apartment.
My stomach somersaulted and I lay there frozen to the spot. What if the Japanese were right? What if that baby had somehow obtained the spirit of my dead boy by wearing that damn sleepsuit? It was a completely irrational thought, I knew, and yet…
I got up out of bed and slowly, so not to wake Alice, opened the door and listened. The crying had stopped but there was a scuttling sound, like something running across the floorboards.
It couldn’t be the baby, I told myself. That was impossible.
I tiptoed down the stairs, heart pounding. I didn’t switch on the light. I was worried it would wake my already anxious wife. If that happened, how would I explain it? I could hardly say that I heard it crying too. That would tip her right over the edge.
When I got to the bottom step, something rushed past me, giggling.
The baby had obviously learned to walk.
I stepped down and tried to see it in the dim light but it was hiding.
‘Hey baby,’ I whispered to it, ‘dada’s here to see you.’
I heard it rustling around in the bin, pulling out Alice’s donut box and dropping it onto the floor.
I pulled open the drawer in the table and fumbled for the emergency torch we kept there. When I switched it on and flashed it around the room, I could see him. He was standing there in the corner of the room. He was looking straight at me with those glass eyes.
‘Come on now baby,’ I said in a singsong voice, ‘come to Dada.’
He started walking towards me with his arms outstretched and that grin on his face. I picked him up.
‘John, what are you doing?’
I turned to see the figure of Alice on the stairs.
She switched on the light, and as she did so, I could have sworn the damn thing sunk its teeth into me.
‘Little shit!’ I dropped it and it bounced onto the mat.
Alice dashed over and picked it up, ‘Jesus John! It’s just a baby!’
Just a baby? Like hell, it was.
‘There’s something wrong with it,’ I said to her as calmly as I could manage, ‘there’s a fault somewhere. I need to restart it.’
Alice was staring at me like I was about to commit murder.
‘Don’t be ridiculous John! We’re not turning him off. How could you even suggest that?’
She pulled him closer to her and the baby snuggled into her chest.
‘Give him to me Alice.’
‘No,’ she held onto him even tighter.
I swear, I didn’t mean to hurt her. I mean, I wanted the baby, sure I did, but only because it was making her paranoid. I lunged forward and pulled at her arms, trying to prise them open so I could get to the baby.
‘Stop it John. I won’t let you!’
The baby writhed and wriggled like crazy, but it never made a sound as we fought with one another. I pulled hard until Alice was unable to fight any longer. She let go and I grabbed hold of its head and pulled him away from her.
‘No John, please! Please don’t take my little boy!’
I lay him face down on the table and unzipped his sleepsuit and found the little green light at the base of his spine. I could hear Alice sobbing and begging me not to do it. Believe me, I felt awful, but I knew now I should never have bought the damn thing home in the first place.
I dug the tip of my finger into its spine and held it down until the baby grew stiff and still. The green light went out.
Alice was shrieking and sobbing and so I went to her and tried to hold her close, even though she kept pushing me away.
‘It’s okay,’ I said, ‘It’s okay. It’s over.’
She settled down then and stood weeping quietly into my chest.
But it was then, as I stood comforting her, that I saw it move. The damn thing rolled over onto its back and sat up.
‘Jesus Christ Alice! That thing’s alive.’
I pushed Alice out of the way and picked up the AI again. There was no green glowing light and yet there it was, writhing and wriggling and biting me, fighting to stay alive.
I slammed the thing face down onto the table and pushed down hard with my hand to keep it still. It’s legs and arms flailed wildly and I could hear Alice crying out behind me, ‘John, please John! Stop it John, you’re hurting him!’
Beneath it’s soft velvet skin I could see its blue wires. It was only now that I realised how they looked like human veins underneath that translucent material. I hesitated for a moment and tried to think of another way but there wasn’t one. It’s just a robot, I told myself. Don’t look at it. Don’t listen to Alice. It’s just a robot.
I dug my nails into the soft pink skin on its back and I tore it open.
The baby let out an ear-piercing shriek. One long, shrill note.
Alice stepped forward screaming and shrieking, trying to pull me away but I shook her off, sending her stumbling backwards. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her drop to her knees, and at first I thought she was just upset. Distraught at having her baby taken away from her for a second time.
It’s not real. Just a robot.
I shoved my hand into the cavity in the baby’s back and gripped the cords as tightly as I could and pulled hard. The baby screamed. Try as I might, the wires just would not break. They stretched out, like long laces of licorice. I pulled and I tugged and there was a sickening sound like tendons snapping, as the wires finally came off in my hand.
The baby lay on the table, convulsing and shrieking so loudly I had to place my trembling hands over my ears to block out the noise. Eventually, the baby gave a final whimper and lay still. I waited a moment to check if it moved again, but it was dead this time.
‘I’m so sorry Alice,’ I said, ‘I should never have bought it home. I guess I thought…’
But Alice wasn’t answering.
I turned to see her lay on the floor clutching her stomach.
‘It’s okay Ali, you’ll be okay,’ I said, ‘it’s not like it was real. It wasn’t our Jasper. It was a robot. You’re okay, Alice. Alice?’
But Alice couldn’t answer. She lay on the tatami mat, blood trickling down her legs, spreading out like a tulip beneath her.
Jun 15 2018
Rank #2: PseudoPod 608: A Visit to the Catacombs of Via Altamonvecchi
- Author : Joe Weintraub
- Narrator : Halloween Bloodfrost
- Host : Alasdair Stuart
- Audio Producer : Marty Perrett
- Discuss on Forums
“A Visit to the Catacombs of Via Altamonvecchi” was originally published in Karamu (vol. xx, no. 2, Spring 2007), a literary review out of Eastern Illinois University. In addition, I have featured a shortened version in readings around the Chicago area, including at the Twilight Tales reading series at the Red Lion Pub (then the only haunted bar in the Chicago metropolitan area).
This soundbed utilizes the following sources from Freesound.org (https://freesound.org/):
Long Low Thunder 02 quiet autumn downtown street 03 Low Rumble pasture ambience LONG INT Cave Room tone Mystical Cavern Water Dripping in Cave Ewater_drip-echo stream running under rocks, glamorgan coast, wales Water Through Drain (With Reverb)
A Visit to the Catacombs
by J. Weintraub
Welcome to the catacombs of via Altamontivecchi, the grandest and one of the most ancient in the world. I will be your guide for this special pilgrim’s tour in the English language. If you have booked in advance, you will find the number 34 stamped on your ticket. If you have not booked in advance, you have no business being here. Please return tomorrow in the morning when there will be more tours for you in several languages.
For those of you who have booked in advance, please step inside.
Again, welcome to our tour. I trust you have all signed the waiver and have also had the opportunity to visit the facilities as instructed? Good. The visit will be of long duration, and there will be no opportunities once we are inside. Now, please hand over your tickets. Twelve places only. Thank you. Thank you. Please step inside. Thank you.
Before we proceed further, several cautions need to be spoken. Please stay close to me together so you will hear all of my instructions and absorb all the history and the other observations without the need for repetitions. But more important, you must not stray from the group. This is absolute. The galleries of via Altamontivecchi are quite intricate and are estimated to extend over 15 kilometers, longer than even the great complex of Domitilla outside the walls of Rome. Galleries lead into galleries in a most confusing manner, intersect with upper and lower levels, and at its outermost extremities, to the east and to the south, merge with unsafe pagan columbria linked to the worship of Mithra and Sabazius. If you become lost in these extremities, there is no assurance you will find your way out or be found. In the past century, in fact, an entire class, sixteen students and their professor, disappeared without a trace.
Of course, you might be saying to yourself, “All I need do is to follow my way back towards the light!” But that is not such an easy thing as you might think. I myself once thought in a similar manner, but I mistakenly took a passage that led me in the opposite direction, and when I tried to retrace my steps, I could only see an occasional flickering, like fireflies on a moonless night. Fortunately, I had not penetrated far, but there are sectors where huge crevices have opened, quite deep enough to swallow anyone who has strayed from the guided tour and then gone from there into eternity. Even in ancient days, when the galleries were new and expanding, guides like me were hired and passages were obstructed to prevent visitors and relatives from losing their way and eventually polluting these holy places with their unsanctified corpses.
So, please stay with the group and avoid curious wanderings. We want you to enjoy your visit!
Also, please avoid touching the walls and masonry. The galleries we will be visiting are quite safe, but catacombs require a soft, penetrable rock like this tufa. Slabs can be easily dislodged, and there are pockets just beneath the surface where the rock becomes loose and granular, almost like a liquid. Also, the ancients strengthened many of the vaults and stress points with brick, mortar, and plaster, all subject to erosion. You do not want to risk bringing down several tons of volcanic rock upon our heads for a souvenir.
And yes, to remove anything from the premises, from the smallest stone to an undiscovered fragment of a relic, is a criminal offense. The Altamontivecchi catacombs are a national treasure.
So, we are understood? Are there questions? Good. We can begin our tour. Please hold onto the railing and proceed carefully. The descent is steep and the steps are as old as the catacombs themselves, carved directly from the rock and rubbed smooth by the footsteps of numberless pilgrims just like yourself. Note the small square apertures cut into the walls where oil lamps were placed to light the way for many centuries, depositing an impressive residue of soot and grime along the passageway. Another reason to avoid contact with the walls and to thank providence for the miracle of electricity.
We arrive now at the most recent construction, an extensive marble altar erected shortly after the rediscovery of the catacombs during the so-called Bloody Schism. Here it is said that many sacraments were performed in private until the authorities of the Counter Reformation put a stop to it. Note the fine decorative ornament on the altar stone, with garlands and cornucopia almost pagan in their exuberance.
Now as we turn down this path . . . and then into this one, you will note that all natural light has vanished behind us. Without the electric lights on the walls and the torch in my hand, we would be in total darkness. Here, along both walls, in the displays behind the glass, are the artifacts that have been found in the tombs and their surrounding spaces. Note the iron, bronze, and ceramic lamps that I mentioned earlier. Also we have the digging tools—mattocks and picks—left by the fossores, numerous offerings—coins, glass vials, earthenware vessels—and mementoes of the dead—rings, bracelets, and brooches, and even this toy doll, carved from ivory, found embedded in the stucco sealing the grave of the eight-year-old Aurelia Hyacinth.
In the far corner, you see pottery shards, cooking pots, stone fetishes, and iron utensils of great antiquity. These were found at the end of the last century with the collapse of a wall during an excavation that revealed behind it a cavern hidden since Neolithic times. Among the shards and cookware were fragments of human bones, also scorched like the pottery. It is unknown whether this was the result of primitive funerary practices or, as one radical archaeologist suggests, signs of ritual cannibalism among our native ancestors. In either case, it speaks of the long habitation of the site and its ancient ceremonial significance.
Now, as we turn into the central gallery, look up to the roof of the vault. Near what was once a skylight, you see the great image of the Majestas Domini, thought to have been painted in the late third century. Scholars tell us that since this is the first known portrayal of Christ Enthroned surrounded by a nimbus—a device typical of pagan iconography–the painting is likely to have been superimposed upon an earlier fresco of Helios, God of the Sun.
It is also exactly here at this spot, just where that young lady is standing—no, no, Miss, you don’t need to move —where Tomas the shepherd fell through that very skylight above us to his death. The opening had been sealed long before to prevent such an unfortunate incident, but perhaps several months of floods and the seepage led to its collapse. We can only hope that enough natural light followed from his fall to illuminate the magnificent image above him as Tomas lay there on his broken back, dying.
Tomas was given credit for the re-discovery of the Altamontivecchi catacombs, but in truth, it was his herd of abandoned sheep and his barking dog that brought the villagers to the site. And if it had not been for the intercession of Father Adrian, now beatified by the Holy See, the opening may have been quickly resealed by the superstitious peasants and the catacombs again forgotten. A simple parish priest, Father Adrian was also a learned man and deeply committed to the defense of the Church against a violent iconoclasm then wreaking havoc and bloodshed across the countryside. What a superb witness then is this striking vision above us to the importance and power of the image for the first believers, the founders of the true Church.
As we descend deeper into the earliest parts of the complex and turn here, we arrive at the Corridor of the Martyrs, the most important of our pilgrim sites. Yes, it is quite impressive, isn’t it? Row upon row, tier upon tier of burial slots, graves like shelves or berths on a ship carved into the rock. They are called loculi and they extend seemingly endlessly into the darkness, ample evidence of the ferocity of the third- and fourth-century persecutions, particularly during the reigns of Valerian and Diocletian.
No, all of the loculi here were emptied of their remains long ago, some the victims of barbarian plunderings, others translocated to the surface where they could be venerated more publicly, and still others transported far beyond our borders during the eighth and ninth centuries when the market for relics was especially active and profitable.
And, of course, not all of these are the graves of martyrs or saints. Most of the epitaphs and graffiti were inscribed years after the burials, and entire communities wished to be entombed near those who could intercede in their behalf in the world to come. But note the simplicity and starkness of the arrangement and the lack of ornament or display, testimony to the modest circumstances of the original believers, but also the willingness of those in higher stations to humble themselves as part of a congregation before God.
But still, martyrs and saints were laid to rest here, and we know for a fact that in this tiny niche the holy Palladian once reposed, and in these six graves, one atop the other, lay the six Coronati—Praetorian guards converted, brutally tortured, and thereafter crowned with the gift of martyrdom. Here, at my eyelevel, was once the saintly Petros, and in this narrow slot just below, lay his skin, now venerated in Budapest. In here the holy Valeria was interred, although her head was claimed for via Altamarina. Here Palomon the Elder and by his side Palomon the Younger, or at least those parts that could be retrieved from the horses. Posidius. Pontesilea, Aprius—said to be a follower of the anti-Pope Novatian—Dalmatius, Onager, Vitalia, Rubilla, Viktor, and the one, two, three, four, five sons of Renata, and above, the blessed Renata herself. Beneath this cavity, you can still see engraved the single word Stercorius, or “abandoned in garbage,” although whether this is the name of the martyr or simply where his remains were first deposited is unknown.
These two cavities, when opened, first seemed empty, but the inscriptions and the traces of paint seemingly depicting flames on the arcosolium of this one convinced the ecclesiastical authorities that the heavy residue of ash found inside was none other than St. Eventius. In the other one? In there nothing more than two pairs of pincers were found, but it was believed that the shreds of flesh soldered into the grooves of the prongs once belonged to St. Marcella.
Farther on down the loculi become more sparse, but the graves increase again in number as we move into the latter half of the fourth century with its multitude of heterodoxies, and then at the end of the passageway, behind the grating, the surprisingly ornate ossuarium of the Heresiarch Ostian, who was interred here with the bones of 200 of his slaughtered followers. If you visit the smaller complex at via Altamarina, you will see the crypticum of the Archbishop Fabian, who has been credited with the extermination of the cult.
Now, allow me to turn on the interior light, and as you pass the grating, look toward the lunettes of the arcosolium just above the altar, and you will see a series of remarkably realistic chthonic and zoomorphic representations painted by an anonymous Thracian artist, who, if the inscription is to be believed, was sympathetic to the sect and eventually joined them here.
Oh, my . . . oh, no . . . Don’t be frightened. Please, Madam. . . . This happens on occasion. Power failures like these are common in the late summer. Or perhaps there’s been a short circuit. The severe humidity. Here, let me try something. This switch just over here. . . . Sometimes after an overload, we can simply click it off—there—and then wait a moment before I click it back on. . . . There. . . . No, that’s not it. I suppose it is a power failure. We have had a very oppressive summer, and I’m sure the lights, air conditioners, refrigerators, and such above ground are all in the black, too, just like here below. But still we must proceed, and thankfully, I have the light of my torch to guide us. The batteries were replaced several weeks ago, so we should be just fine. But please, stay close to me as we move on.
These stairs will lead us to the next level below and into the fifth century. I will shine the light on the steps, but be sure to take hold of the railing as you descend. Yes, I know it is a bit unsteady from the porous nature of the rock here, but it will be perfectly safe if you proceed carefully. . . . Here, I have reached bottom, and if you will first gather around me, we will continue into the gallery.
On this level, we witness the enormous growth of what was once a tiny congregation of true believers now spread across the land despite the state’s attempts to eradicate them. Again, row upon row, tier upon tier of graves, excavated at considerable cost, yet worth the expense to those who wished to be interred nearby the saints and martyrs of previous generations.
Here much of the original plaster and terracotta tiles are still in place, along with the remains interred inside. Apparently this level was unknown to the barbarians and others who vandalized the tombs. But they would not have found much of value had they in fact penetrated this far. These were ordinary folk, their bones not worthy of public veneration, the mementoes interred with them—copper jewelry, vials of unguents, small coins, and toys for the children— all of little artistic or monetary worth. But still a unique site since many of the epitaphs are as visible as when they were inscribed into the plaster. See HIC REQUIESCIT here, and here HIC REQUIESCIT, and here HIC REQUIESCIT, and up and down the gallery HIC REQUIESCIT, HIC REQUIESCIT, HIC REQUIESCIT. Not very creative, these ordinary folk, but an impressive display, nevertheless.
As we turn towards the chamber reserved for your group, the corridor becomes very narrow. Please single file here, and you might want to place your hands on the shoulders of the person in front of you until we reach the great Cryptoporticus of Danilo at the Spelunca Magna.
Now attention, please, as we turn here. The rubble you see on your right spilling into your path seals a transverse gallery that once led to the famous Capella of the Good Shepherd—all destroyed when the passage and several others collapsed five years ago last month during the previous eruption of Altamontivecchi and the ensuing earthquake. An unredeemable loss. By the by, I hope you have had the opportunity to visit our Altamontivecchi volcano during the evening time. A spectacular display, particularly around the crater where the lava flow is especially impressive.
Here you see the plaque recently dedicated to the Dacian pilgrims who were awaiting the return of their guide when the first tremors struck. Unfortunately, my good friend Nicolo, who was still on the surface, was killed instantly in the collapse of the basilica, and with so much chaos and devastation above, little thought was given to those awaiting Nicolo here below. Of course, it probably was no matter, since the galleries and cubiculi hereabouts seemed to have disappeared completely. At least, when shafts were sunk from above, they struck nothing but rock, and excavations here were abandoned in face of the tons of solid granite that had tumbled into the passageway.
It was no accident, some superstitions people say, that the incident occurred in the vicinity of the Cubiculum of Danilo, and here we are. Note the brick masonry on the vault, required to support the tufa in this sector, and the plaster surfaces where fragments of color from the frescoes that once appeared here can still be seen. Over there, behind the grating, is the throne of Danilo carved from solid rock and where bits of gold leaf still sparkle in the light of my torch.
On either side are the seats occupied by the catechist and presiding deacon, and the low stone benches were probably set aside for the instruction of the catechumens. No one knows what rites were performed here, although there are suggestions of a corrupt Eucharist liturgy. The paintings were largely destroyed during the purifications of the late fifth century, but note the remnants of la banquet scene on the vault, either a celestial or diabolical convivium, and over there is what might be the earliest representation of the devil. You can barely see the gaping mouth of the demon amidst the roaring flames of hell, although some scholars say it is rather the maw of the leviathan about to swallow Jonas and the flames are merely waves.
Behind the throne is the crypt where the sarcophagus of Danilo was to rest. The walls here, too were once covered with frescoes and grotesqueries, but in this instance even the plaster was scraped from the masonry, and nothing remains. Of course, the great Apostate was never interred here, his ashes scattered to the four winds, but it is said by superstitious people that his spirit animates these corridors when the sun disappears in the west.
Now we descend in this direction, and please form again into a very narrow single line. Careful. The ground is uneven, and you will notice a trembling at your feet as we cross over a very swift subterranean river. The current is especially strong this year because of the heavy summer rains, and this explains the thick moisture on the walls and the chill in the air. No, no, Madam, that was only a cold draft, I’m sure, that passed over your feet. From the river, probably. There are no vermin down here.
And here we arrive at our terminus. This chamber is called the Capella of Peace, from the inscription IN PACE AETERNA engraved over the portal.
All of you come inside. You must now remove the robes from your packs and put them on. There are additional robes on the shelf there if you neglected to bring one. Place your packs, your guidebooks, and your other belongings in the corner here. They will be safe.
Be sure all of your garments are well covered. The loculi here are clean–all remains and offerings, of course, have been removed—but dust and dirt continue to erode from the walls. Use the hoods to protect your heads, but careful not to wrap it around your nose or mouth. It will be close enough for you inside as is.
All the loculi here are about the same size, but the elderly among you may want to choose the ones closest to the ground. There are stepladders about for those of you who can climb to a higher tier and are not uncomfortable with the sensation of height.
No, I’m sorry. You must all find a place for yourself. Yes, I know, people do change their minds, but there is nothing I can do about it now. You have come this far and you must carry on to the end. No, I cannot take anyone back under any circumstances. You must find your place here. There are no benches or resting spots nearby, and besides, you must not leave the chamber in my absence, especially now that we are suffering through a power failure. I assure you that this is an experience that will change you forever. To meditate among our ancient martyrs and saints in this famed locus sanctus, to join spiritually a community of primitive believers and the pilgrims and people of God who followed in their path and acted as you are about to act, this is a privilege permitted only to a few and many have waited in vain for years to participate. As the graffito over there reminds us: Intra limina sanctorum, quod multi cupiunt et rari accipiunt.
So, take my hand, and you can slide in right here. That’s right, on your back with your arms crossed over your chest. A nice fit. Yes, I know it feels tight. It often feels tight. Our ancestors were smaller than we are, and they usually arrived here in a state of considerable desiccation. But this will help you to remain still. You must not move or shift your position. You certainly do not want to wedge yourself inside, by trying, say, to turn onto your stomach, and be sure, all of you, to avoid sudden movements. Tufa is soft rock, but it is rock nevertheless, and the mattocks have left sharp ridges.
Those tremors? I am sure they are no more than the vibrations from the river running beneath us nearby.
Now, all of you, now that you have found your places and are comfortable, breathe slowly and quietly. If you become anxious, concentrate on breathing more slowly, regularly, silently—otherwise, you will feel as if you are suffocating, which only contributes to your anxiety. Respect the meditations of those around you and the sanctity of the place. Yes, I know. I have participated in this very chamber twice myself. I know how tight it can feel, and I, too, have tasted in my mouth the dirt and the grit of the place. But that is all part of the experience we promised you, as is this. . . . There. I have extinguished my torch, and you find yourself within a darkness so profound it is palpable. Do not be afraid. Study the darkness. Look into the darkness until it becomes one with you and you are one with it, separate from every living thing in the world above.
I can find my way out in the darkness. Ignore the quiet breath of your neighbors and allow the silence to envelop you as I leave.
I should be back before very long.
The post PseudoPod 608: A Visit to the Catacombs of Via Altamonvecchi appeared first on PseudoPod.
Aug 17 2018
Rank #3: PseudoPod 687: The Yellow Cat
- Author : Michael Joseph
- Narrator : Phil Lunt
- Host : Alasdair Stuart
- Audio Producer : Chelsea Davis
- Discuss on Forums
“The Yellow Cat” originally published in Hutchinson’s Mystery Story Magazine, June 1924
Trophy RPG: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/gauntlet/trophy-rpg?ref=discovery&term=trophy
Duggan Hill Podcast: https://dugganhill.com/
The Walken Puss In Boots: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GEjKmsMkPKQ
The Yellow Cat
by Michael Joseph
It all began when Grey was followed home, inexplicably enough, by the strange, famished yellow cat. The cat was thin with large, intense eyes which gleamed amber in the forlorn light of the lamp on the street corner. It was standing there as Grey passed, whistling dejectedly, for he had had a depressing run of luck at Grannie’s tables, and it made a slight piteous noise as it looked up at him. Then it followed at his heels, creeping along as though it expected to be kicked unceremoniously out of the way.
Grey did, indeed, make a sort of half-threatening gesture when, looking over his shoulder, he saw the yellow cat behind.
“If you were a black cat,” he muttered, “I’d welcome you—but get out!”
The cat’s melancholy amber eyes gleamed up at him, but it made no sign and continued to follow. This would have annoyed Grey in his already impatient humour, but he seemed to find a kind of savage satisfaction in the fact that he was denied even the trifling consolation of a good omen. Like all gamblers, he was intensely superstitious, although he had had experience in full measure of the futility of all supposedly luckbringing mascots. He carried a monkey’s claw sewn in the lining of his waistcoat pocket, not having the courage to throw it away. But this wretched yellow cat that ought to have been black did not irritate him as might have been expected.
He laughed softly; the restrained, unpleasant laugh of a man fighting against misfortune.
“Come on, then, you yellow devil; we’ll sup together.”
He took his gloveless hand from his coat pocket and beckoned to the animal at his heels; but it took as little notice of his gesture of invitation as it had of his menacing foot a moment before. It just slid along the greasy pavement, covering the ground noiselessly, not deviating in the slightest from the invisible path it followed, without hesitation.
It was a bitterly cold, misty night, raw and damp. Grey shivered as he thrust his hand back into the shelter of his pocket and hunched his shoulders together underneath the thin coat that afforded but little protection against the cold.
With a shudder of relief he turned into the shelter of the courtyard which lay between the icy street and the flight of stairs which led to his room. As he stumbled numbly over the rough cobblestones of the yard he suddenly noticed that the yellow cat had disappeared.
He was not surprised and gave no thought whatever to the incident until, a few minutes later, at the top of the ramshackle stairs, the feeble light of a hurricane lamp revealed the creature sitting, or rather lying, across the threshold of his door.
He took an uncertain step backward. He said to himself: “That’s odd.” The cat looked up at him impassively with brooding, sullen eyes. He opened the door, stretching over the animal to turn the crazy handle.
Silently the yellow cat rose and entered the shadowy room. There was something uncanny, almost sinister in its smooth, noiseless movements. With fingers that shook slightly, Grey fumbled for matches, struck a light and, closing the door behind him, lit the solitary candle.
He lived in this one room, over a mews which had become almost fashionable since various poverty-stricken people, whose names still carried some weight with the bourgeois tradesmen of this Mayfair backwater, had triumphantly installed themselves; and Grey turned it skilfully to account when he spoke with casual indifference of ‘the flat’ he occupied, ‘next to Lady Susan Tyrrell’s’.
Grey, although he would never have admitted it, was a cardsharper and professional gambler. But even a cardsharper needs a little ordinary luck. Night after night he watched money pass into the hands of ‘the pigeons’, ignorant, reckless youngsters, and foolish old women who, having money to burn, ought by all the rules of the game to have lost. Yet when playing with him, Grey, a man respected even among the shabby fraternity of those who live by their wits, they won. He had turned to roulette, but even with a surreptitious percentage interest in the bank he had lost. His credit was exhausted. Grannie herself had told him he was a regular Jonah. He was cold, hungry and desperate. Presently his clothes, the last possession, would betray him, and no longer would he be able to borrow the casual trifle that started him nightly in his desperate bout with fortune.
His room contained a wooden bed and a chair. A rickety table separated them. The chair served Grey as a wardrobe; on the table stood a candle with a few used matches which he used to light the cheap cigarettes he smoked in bed; the grease had a habit of adhering to the tobacco when the candle was used, and Grey was fastidious. The walls were bare save for a cupboard, a pinned-up Sporting Life Racing Calendar and two cheap reproductions of Kirchner’s midinettes. There was no carpet on the floor. A piece of linoleum stretched from the empty grate to the side of the bed.
At first Grey could not see the cat, but the candle, gathering strength, outlined its shadow grotesquely against the wall. It was crouched on the end of the bed.
He lighted one of the used matches and lit the small gas-ring which was the room’s sole luxury. Gas was included in the few shillings he paid weekly for rent; consequently Grey used it for warmth. He seldom used it to cook anything, as neither whisky (which he got by arrangement with one of Grannie’s waiters), bread nor cheese, which formed his usual diet, require much cooking.
The cat moved and, jumping noiselessly on to the floor, cautiously approached the gas-ring, by the side of which it stretched its lean yellowish body. Very softly but plaintively it began to mew.
Grey cursed it. Then he turned to the cupboard and took out a cracked jug. He moved the bread on to his own plate and poured out the little milk it contained in the shallow bread-plate.
The cat drank, not greedily but with the fierce rapidity which betokens hunger and thirst. Grey watched it idly as he poured whisky into a cup. He drank, and refilled the cup. He then began to undress, carefully, in order to prolong the life of his worn dinner-jacket.
The cat looked up. Grey, taking off his shirt, beneath which, having no vest, he wore another woollen shirt, became uncomfortably aware of its staring yellow eyes. Seized with a crazy impulse, he poured the whisky from his cup into the remainder of the milk in the plate.
“Share and share alike,” he cried. “Drink, you—”
Then the yellow cat snarled at him; the vilest, loathsome sound; and Grey for a moment was afraid. Then he laughed, as if at himself for allowing control to slip, and finished undressing, folding the garments carefully, and hanging them on the chair.
The cat went back to its place at the foot of the bed, its eyes gleaming warily in Grey’s direction. He restrained his impulse to throw it out of the room and clambered between the rough blankets without molesting it.
By daylight the cat was an ugly misshapen creature. It had not moved from the bed. Grey regarded it with amused contempt.
Usually the morning found him profoundly depressed and irritable. For some unaccountable reason he felt now almost light-hearted.
He dressed, counted his money and decided to permit himself the luxury of some meager shopping in the adjacent Warwick Market, which supplied the most expensive restaurant proprietors with the cheapest food. Nevertheless, it was an accommodating spot for knowledgeable individuals like Grey.
The cat, still crouching on the bed, made no attempt to follow him, and he closed the door as softly as its erratic hinges would allow, aware that the cat’s eyes still gazed steadily in his direction.
In the market, he obeyed an impulse to buy food for the cat, and at the cost of a few pence added a portion of raw fish to his purchases. On the way home he cursed himself for a fool, and would have thrown the fish away, the clumsy paper wrapping having become sodden with moisture, when he was hailed by a voice he had almost forgotten.
“Grey! Just the man I want to see!”
Grey greeted him with a fair show of amiability, although, if appearance were any indication, the other was even less prosperous than himself. He, too, had been an habitue of Grannie’s in the old days, but had long since drifted out on the sea of misfortune. Despite his shabby appearance, he turned to Grey and said: “You’ll have a drink ?” Then, noting Grey’s dubious glance, he laughed and added: “It’s on me all right. I’ve just touched lucky.”
A little later Grey emerged from the public-house on the corner the richer by five pounds, which the other had insisted on lending him in return for past favours. What exactly the past favours had been, Grey was too dazed to inquire; as far as he could recollect he had always treated the man with scant courtesy. He did not even remember his name.
He was still trying to remember who the man was when he climbed the stairs. He knew him well enough, for Grey was the type who never forgets a face. It was when his eyes alighted on the yellow cat that he suddenly remembered.
The man was Felix Mortimer. And Felix Mortimer had shot himself during the summer!
At first Grey tried to assure himself that he had made a mistake. Against his better judgment he tried to convince himself that the man merely bore a strong resemblance to Felix Mortimer. But at the back of his mind he knew.
Anyway, the five-pound note was real enough.
He methodically placed the fish in a saucepan and lit the gas-ring.
Presently the cat was eating, in that curious, deliberate way it had drunk the milk the night before. Its emaciated appearance plainly revealed that it was starving; yet it devoured the fish methodically, as though now assured of a regular supply.
Grey, turning the five-pound note in his hand, wondered whether the cat had after all changed his luck. But his thoughts kept reverting to Felix Mortimer…
The next few days left him in no doubt. At Grannie’s that night, fortune’s pendulum swung back unmistakably. He won steadily. From roulette he turned to chemin de fer elated to find that his luck held good.
“Your luck’s changed with a vengeance!” said one of the ‘regulars’ of the shabby genteel saloon.
“With a vengeance,” echoed Grey, and paused; wondering with the superstition of the born gambler if there were significance in the phrase.
He left Grannie’s the richer by two hundred odd pounds.
His success was the prelude to the biggest slice of luck, to use his own phrase, that he had ever known. He gambled scientifically, not losing his head, methodically banking a proportion of his gains each morning; planning, scheming, striving to reach that high-water mark at which, so he told himself with the gambler’s timeworn futility, he would stop and never gamble again.
Somehow he could not make up his mind to leave the poverty-stricken room in the fashionable mews. He was terribly afraid it would spell a change of luck. He tried to improve it, increase its comfort, but it was significant that he bought first a basket and a cushion for the yellow cat.
For there was no doubt in his mind that the cat was the cause of his sudden transition from poverty to prosperity. In his queer, intensely superstitious mind, the yellow cat was firmly established as his mascot.
He fed it regularly, waiting on it himself as though he were its willing servant. He made a spasmodic attempt to caress it, but the cat snarled savagely at him and, frightened, he left it alone. If the cat ever moved from the room he never saw it go; whenever he went in or came out the cat was there, watching him with its gleaming amber eyes.
He accepted the situation philosophically enough. He would talk to the cat of himself, his plans for the future, the new people he met—for money had speedily unlocked more exalted doors than Grannie’s—all this in the eloquence derived from wine and solitude, he would pour out into the unmoved ears of the cat, crouching at the foot of the bed. And then, without daring to speak of it, he would think of Felix Mortimer and the gift that had proved the turning-point of his fortunes.
The creature watched him impassively, contemptuously indifferent to his raving or his silence. But the weird menage continued, and Grey’s luck held good.
The days passed and he became ambitious. He was now within reach of that figure which he fondly imagined would enable him to forsake his precarious existence. He told himself that he was now, to all intents and purposes, safe. And he decided to move into more civilized and appropriate surroundings.
Nevertheless, he himself procured an expensive wicker contraption to convey the yellow cat from the garret to his newly acquired and, by contrast, luxurious maisonnette. It was furnished in abominable taste, but the reaction from sheer poverty had its effect. And then he had begun to drink more than was good for a man who required a cool head and a steady nerve for at least part of a day which was really night.
One day he had cause to congratulate himself on his new home. For he met, for the first time in his thirty odd years of life, a woman. Now Grey divided women into two classes. There were ‘the regulars’—soulless creatures with the gambler’s fever and crook’s alphabet—and ‘pigeons’, foolish women, some young, most of them old, who flourished their silly but valuable plumage to be plucked by such as he.
But Elise Dyer was different. She stirred his pulses with a strange, exquisite sensation. Her incredible fair hair, flaxen as waving corn, her fair skin, her deep violet eyes and her delicate carmine mouth provoked him into a state of unaccustomed bewilderment.
They talked one night of mascots. Grey, who had never mentioned the yellow cat to a soul, whispered that he would, if she cared, show her the mascot that had brought him his now proverbial good luck. The girl agreed, with eager enthusiasm, to his diffident suggestion to go with him to his flat; and he, in his strange simplicity, stammered that she would do him honour. He had forgotten that Elise Dyer knew him for a rich man.
Elated by his triumph, he paid her losses and called for champagne. The girl plied him skillfully with wine, and presently he was more drunk than he had been since the beginning of his era of prosperity.
They took a cab to the flat. Grey felt that he had reached the pinnacle of triumph. Life was wonderful, glorious! What did anything matter now ?
He switched on the light and the girl crossed his threshold. The room which they entered was lavishly illuminated, the lights shaded into moderation by costly fabrics. The room, ornate and over-furnished, reflected money. The girl gave a gasp of delight.
For the first time the cat seemed aware of something unusual. It stretched itself slowly and stood up, regarding them with a fierce light in its eyes.
The girl screamed.
“For God’s sake take it away!” she cried. “I can’t bear it! I can’t be near it. Take that damned cat away!” And she began to sob wildly, piteously, retreating towards the door.
At this Grey lost all control and, cursing wildly, shouting bestial things at the oncoming animal, seized it by the throat.
“Don’t…don’t cry, dearie,” panted Grey, holding the cat; “I’ll settle this swine soon enough. Wait for me!” And he staggered through the open door.
Grey ran through the deserted streets. The cat had subsided under the clutch of his fingers and lay inert, its yellowish fur throbbing. He scarcely knew where he was going. All he realized was an overwhelming desire to be rid of the tyranny of this wretched creature he held by the throat.
At last he knew where he was going. Not far from Grey’s new establishment ran the Prince’s canal, that dark, sluggish stream that threads its way across the fashionable residential district of the outlying west. To the canal he ran; and without hesitation he threw the yellow cat into the water.
The next day he realized what he had done. At first he was afraid, half hoping that the superstitious spasm of fear would pass. But a vivid picture swam before his eyes, the broken surface of a sluggish dream…
“You’re a coward,” she taunted him. “Why don’t you act like a man ? Go to the tables and see for yourself that you can still win in spite of your crazy cat notions!”
At first he refused, vehemently; but it gradually dawned on him that therein lay his chance of salvation. Once let him throw down the gauntlet and win and his peace of mind would be assured.
That night he received a vociferous welcome on his return to the Green Baize Club.
It was as he feared. He lost steadily.
Then suddenly an idea came to him. ‘Supposing the cat were still alive ? Why hadn’t he thought of that before ? Why, there was a saying that every cat had nine lives! For all he knew it might have swum safely to the bank and got away.
His feverish impulse crystallized into action. He hurriedly left the club and beckoned urgently to a passing taxicab.
After what seemed interminable delay he reached the spot where he had madly flung the cat away from him. The stillness of the water brought home to him the futility of searching for the animal here. This was not the way to set to work.
The thing preyed on his mind in the days that followed. Exhaustive inquiries failed to discover the least trace of the yellow cat.
Night after night he went to the tables, lured there by the maddening thought that if only he could win he would drug the torment and be at peace. But he lost…
And then a strange thing happened.
One night, returning home across a deserted stretch of the park, he experienced a queer, irresistible impulse to lift his feet from the grass and make for the gravel path. He resented the impulse, fought against it; he was cold and worn out, and by cutting across the grass he would save many minutes of weary tramping. But the thing like a mysterious blind instinct persisted, and in the end he found himself running, treading gingerly on the sodden grass.
He did not understand why this had happened to him.
The next day Grey did not get out of his bed until late in the afternoon.
He crossed the room in search of his dressing-gown and caught sight of himself in the glass of his wardrobe. Only then did he realize that he was clambering over the floor with his head near the carpet, his hands outstretched in front of him. He stood upright with difficulty and reached a shaking hand for brandy.
It took him two hours to struggle into his clothes, and by the time he was ready to go out it was nearly dark. He crept along the street. The shops were closing. He saw nothing of them until he reached the corner where he halted abruptly, with a queer sensation of intense hunger. On the cold marble before him lay unappetizing slabs of raw fish. His body began to quiver with suppressed desire. Another moment and nothing could have prevented him seizing the fish in his bare hands, when the shutters of the shop dropped noisily across the front of the sloping marble surface.
Grey knew that something had happened, that he was very ill. Now that he could not see the vision of the yellow cat, his mind was a blank. Somehow he retraced his footsteps and got back to his room.
The bottle of brandy stood where he had left it. He had not turned on the light, but he could see it plainly. He dragged it to his lips.
With a crash it went to the floor, while Grey leapt into the air, savage with nausea. He felt that he was choking. With an effort he pulled himself together, to find that it was beyond his power to stop the ghastly whining sound that issued from his lips. He tried to lift himself on to the bed, but in sheer exhaustion collapsed on the floor, where he lay still in an attitude not human.
The room lightened with the dawn and a new day passed before the thing on the floor moved. Something of the clarity of vision which comes to starving men now possessed him. He stared at his hands.
The fingers seemed to have withered: the nails had almost disappeared, leaving a narrow streak of hornish substance forming in their place. He tore himself frantically towards the window. In the fading light he saw that the backs of his hands were covered with a thin, almost invisible surface of coarse, yellowish fur.
Unimaginable horrors seized him. He knew now that the scarlet thread of his brain was being stretched to breaking-point. Presently it would snap…
Unless—unless. The yellow cat alone could save him. To this last human thought he clung, in an agony of terror.
Unconscious of movement, he crept swiftly into the street, his shapeless eyes peering in the darkness which surrounded him. He groped his way stealthily towards the one place which the last remnant of his brain told him might yield the secret of his agony.
Down the silent bank he scrambled headlong, towards the still water. The dawn’s pale radiance threw his shadow into a grotesque pattern. On the edge of the canal he halted, his hands embedded in the sticky crumbling earth, his head shaking, his eyes searching in agonized appeal, into the depths of the motionless water.
There he crouched, searching, searching…
And there in the water he saw the yellow cat.
He stretched out the things that were his arms, while the yellow cat stretched out its claws to enfold him in the broken mirror of the water.
Jan 31 2020
Rank #4: PseudoPod 571: Haunted
- Author : Sarah Gailey
- Narrator : Dani Daly
- Hosts : Dani Daly and Alex Hofelich
- Audio Producer : Chelsea Davis
- Discuss on Forums
This story was originally published in Issue 31 of Fireside Fiction in February 2016
Click to view content warnings:Spoiler Inside
by Sarah Gailey
Dec 01 2017
Rank #5: PseudoPod 686: The Phantom Rider
- Author : Otis Adelbert Kline
- Narrator : Sean D. Sorrentino
- Host : Alasdair Stuart
- Audio Producer : Chelsea Davis
- Discuss on Forums
“The Phantom Rider” originally appeared in Weird Tales, November 1924
The Phantom Rider
by Otis Adelbert Kline
Big Bill Hawkins laid the trap with admirable precision. Every little detail had been worked out with the utmost nicety.
The care-free manner of his partner, Seth Ormsby, indicated that he suspected nothing, though he did seem somewhat puzzled by Big Bill’s unwonted loquacity and unprecedented joviality. He had shown a strange lack of enthusiasm when, after a summer of unrequited toil, the prospectors had stumbled on the vein that promised to make them both independently wealthy: During the days spent in preliminary work with a view to replenishing their depleted larder, he had been unusually taciturn, even sullen at times.
As they rode abreast along the trail, followed by the two pack-mules, the foremost of which bore in its saddlebags enough gold dust to purchase the entire general store at Red Dog, Big Bill outdid himself in his efforts to be agreeable. At the same time he was thinking, planning.
Big Bill, a dyed-in-the-wool prospector, had first met Ormsby in the Deer Foot Saloon at Red Dog. He had lived up most of his savings and needed a grub-stake. Ormsby, a wandering cowpuncher out of a job, had the necessary money. Under the mellowing influence of liquor they had struck up a partnership.
The country through which they wandered was an open book to Hawkins, and Ormsby, the newcomer, always relied on his burly partner when a choice of directions was to be made. It was Hawkins who, in this instance, had suggested they take this new trail to Red Dog, where papers were to be filed and supplies purchased.
Big Bill felt that he had ample reason to hate Ormsby. For nineteen years he had been prospecting in this region, sometimes with a partner, but more often alone. He had managed to find enough pay-dirt to keep body and soul together and had made occasional moderate strikes rich enough to support him in idleness for several months at a time. The thing that stuck in his craw was the fact that when the big strike came—the strike for which he had been hoping, toiling and struggling for nineteen years—he must share it with this greenhorn; this newcomer who couldn’t tell quartz from shale. He had gambled the best years of his life for this stake and felt that fortune had cold-decked him when she finally dealt him one royal flush and Ormsby the other. It meant that they must either split the pot or leave it up for a showdown, and Big Bill had resolved on a showdown dealt from his own stacked deck.
“Seems like we’re goin’ sorta outa the way to git to Red Dog,” remarked Ormsby, when they suddenly turned at a fork in the trail.
“Not so much.” replied Big Bill with studied indifference. “They’sa water hole down this way and the animals ain’t goin’ to be none the worse off for wettin’ their whistles. We got to think of them as well as ourselves. It’s a long, hot ride and the other trail is bone-dry.”
“Right you are, Bill. I plumb forgot about the poor brutes. A man’ll do that sometimes when he’s got a full canteen himself.”
“You’re a hell of a cowpuncher,” roared Hawkins. “I don’t never forget ’em. They can’t run without water no more’n a ottymobil can run without gasoline.”
“It’s this big strike of ourn that’s got me kinda loco,” replied Ormsby. “I don’t know whether I’m horseback or ridin’ a airyoplane half the time.”
Big Bill did not reply. His eyes were on the trail ahead. The time for action was almost at hand. The sharp curve, now only fifty feet away, was the appointed place.
Nearer and nearer they drew to that curve. Big Bill’s gaze did not falter. True, the hands that held the reins trembled slightly, but there was nothing in his expression that might serve to betray his purpose. He was wearing his poker face. The time for the showdown had arrived. He reined back slightly, drew his keen hunting knife, and stealthily severed the lead ropes.
With a vicious kick he suddenly drove his spur into the left flank of his unsuspecting steed. As the horse reared, he pulled on the right rein, jerking the animal against Ormsby’s mount. The ledge was a narrow one—the drop only a matter of a few feet. Horse and rider lurched, slipped, and fell into something that received them with a dull splash. A moment later man and beast were struggling desperately in a yielding, slimy mess that threatened to engulf them in a few seconds.
Big Bill’s horse galloped swiftly up the trail for more than a hundred yards. By sawing the bit he brought the animal to a prancing walk, then to a dead stop. He turned and rode leisurely back. The frightened squeals of the mired horse all but drowned the man’s cries for help.
“My God, Bill, it’s quicksand!” shouted Ormsby.
Hawkins dismounted leisurely and walked to the brink. Taking a plug of tobacco from his pocket, he bit off a hunk, chewed for a moment, then spat into the bubbling, slimy mess beneath him.
“Damned if it ain’t,” he said. “Hang on for a minute and I’ll throw you a rope.”
With studied deliberation he turned and gave his attention to the coiled lariat that dangled from his saddle. He seemed to be having trouble with the knots.
“Hurry, Bill, for God’s sake!” cried Ormsby. “It’s up to my waist already !”
Big Bill continued to pull at the tangled lariat. Somehow, with each pull, the knot grew tighter. At length he turned. Ormsby had succeeded in loosing his own rope and was trying to throw it to him. The slimy ooze was up to his armpits. Of his horse nothing could, be seen but the foam-flecked nostrils. These disappeared as he cast the rope. It fell at the feet of Hawkins.
“Grab holt of my rope, Bill. I think I can crawl out on it.”
Big Bill stooped slowly and picked up the slime-smeared rope. Then, with a vicious laugh that was almost a snarl, he hurled it in the face of his victim.
The deadly quagmire had reached Ormsby’s chin. A look of blank surprise came to his face. It was followed by one of hatred and revulsion as the sinister purpose of his partner was revealed to him. He tilted his head backward for a last sobbing inhalation.
“You dirty coyote.” he gasped. “You murderin’ yaller dog. I’ll get you for this if I have to break out of hell to do it! I’ll—”
His speech was cut short by the mounting quicksand. A slimy hand waved for a moment above the surface, clutching claw-like at the empty air. Then it, too, disappeared.
Big Bill surveyed the bubble-strewn surface of the quagmire, apparently unmoved. The only remaining trace of his revolting crime was Ormsby’s half-submerged Stetson, which had fallen a few feet from where its owner went down. He sank it from sight with a carefully aimed rock fragment. That he turned his attention to the waiting animals.
The two pack-mules watched him unconcernedly, their long ears drooping limply, as he picked up the ends of the lead-ropes and knotted them together. He vaulted into the saddle and rode to the water hole, only a few rods distant. When the beasts had drunk their fill, he set out with all haste for Red Dog.
The blood-red sun was poised just above the western horizon when Big Bill rode into the village. After seeing that his animals were properly bedded and fed he removed the heavy sacks of “dust” from his saddle-bags and hied to Bonnell’s General Store.
“Hello, Bill,” greeted Dave Bonnell, peering over his silver-rimmed spectacles as the burly prospector strode through the door. “Where’s yer pardner?”
Big Bill laughed a bit nervously.
“Skipped out a coupla weeks ago for parts unknown,” he replied. “Took most of the grub with him, too, the damned skunk! But the joke’s on him. Day after be left I struck pay dirt and staked out a nice little claim for myself. I want you to weigh in this dust for me and fix up my papers.”
The ancient counter trembled with the impact of the two heavy bags which he suddenly placed before the astonished shopkeeper. Dave Bonnell weighed the gold dust with wide-eyed wonder.
“You shore hit pay dirt this time, didn’t you, Bill,” he remarked “Want any cash on this or just a receipt?”
“Gimme about a hundred cash and a receipt for the balance,” replied the prospector, “I ’llow to ride over and file claim in the mornin’. Think you can fix my papers up this evenin’ so I can git an early start tomorrow?”
“Have ’em ready for you by the time you get through with your supper,” said Bonnell. Aside from being a storekeeper, he was a notary public and justice of the peace.
Bill ambled over to the Deer Foot Saloon for a couple of shots of whiskey as an appetizer. Then he went into the adjoining cafe, where he tucked a huge beefsteak, a half dozen eggs, French fried potatoes, coffee, and a piece of pie under his belt. After lighting a long black cigar he returned to the store. Bonnell had the papers ready for his signature. He removed his hat, raised his right hand in solemn oath and affixed his name.
“Well, so long, Dave,” he muttered, when Bonnell handed him the documents. “See you tomorrow afternoon.”
“You’ll be wantin’ some grub and things, I suppose.”
“Yeah. Plenty of things. So long.”
“So long, Bill.”
Late the following afternoon Big Bill rode back from the county seat, the sole owner of the richest claim that had been filed in that office for many years.
He had often wondered how it would feel to be wealthy. Time and again he had planned the things he would do should he ever strike it rich. Now that the big moment had arrived, however, his thoughts were chaos. For one thing, he had promised himself plenty of wine, women and song. As Red Dog afforded only the first mentioned article and it would be necessary for him to inhabit that village for some time to come, be decided that the time for indulgence was at hand. Accordingly he drew up before the Deer Foot Saloon, carelessly tossed his reins over a hitching post, and strode through the door, oozing affluence.
The wine was, of course, only figurative. Big Bill looked on wine as a woman’s drink. He liked his liquor and liked it straight. He swaggered up to the bar and planked a twenty-dollar bill on the counter before the astonished eyes of Joe McGinnis, the porcine bartender.
“Whadda ya got that’s good and strong, Joel?” he asked.
“Well, we got some Old Crow, some Arkoveet that’ll proof about a hundred and twenty, and some Three Star Hennesy and—”
“Gimme Three Star, and see what the rest of the boys will have.”
The motley crew of cowpunchers, prospectors, sheep herders, card sharps and others of doubtful occupations, or no occupations at all, voiced their various wants in no uncertain terms. When they were served they drained their glasses, chorusing “’S lookin’ atcha,” “Here’s how,” and “Happy days.”
Convivial companionship was not lacking after that, especially since Big Bill, in view of his recent prosperity, insisted on buying a lion’s share of the refreshments.
By ten-thirty, however, the crowd began to thin out. Many of the roisterers lurched out to their waiting steeds, some singly, others in small groups. A few who had imbibed too freely lay with heads resting on tables or lolled back in their chairs, oblivious to the drunken songs and ribald jests that went up from those who were able to hold to their moorings before the bar.
Big Bill tossed his last twenty-dollar note under the nose of the barkeeper.
“Givesh nother drink, Joe,” he said gravely. “What t’ell y’standin there like damn Dumb-Isaac for? Ja ’ear me? Shed jam Bum-Isaac. Shwatcha are, too.”
“You had enough, Bill,” said Joe. “Here; put your money in your pocket and go on to bed.”
“Had nuff did I?”
Big Bill glared hostilely at the bartender.
“Gesh I know when I got ’nough. Gimme drink.”
“You’ll get no more to drink tonight. Not here, anyway.”
“Shay. Who t’ll shink you’re talkin’ to. Do I get a drink ‘r don’t I?”
Big Bill was getting ugly. His hand stole toward the forty-five that hung at his hip. The revelers on either side of him stepped back in sudden alarm.
“You heard what I said. Take your money and get out.”
The forty-five roared and broken glasses tinkled in a shower behind the bar. It roared again and a hole appeared in the mirror, surrounded by spoke-like cracks that radiated in all directions.
The sheriff, who had been enjoying a sociable game of draw poker in the back room, poked his head and gun from between the double doors at one and the same time.
“What the hell’s goin’ on here?” he roared.
Big Bill had a wholesome fear of the law. The sight of the gun and star almost sobered him. Panic-stricken, he dropped his forty-five, rushed out through the door and flung himself upon his horse.
The sheriff ran after him, but was stayed by Joe Vienza.
“Let him go, Jack.” he said. “They’s nobody hurt and we can make him pay for the glasses and mirror tomorrow. He’s rich enough to buy this whole town now.”
Big Bill, galloping hastily along the village street, felt sure that he was being pursued. He spurred his horse until the blood spurted from its gashed sides, and tried to think. What was it he had done! For the life of him he could not remember. Everything was hazy up to the time the sheriff had appeared. Suddenly his hand touched the empty holster. He had used his gun. Perhaps he had killed a man.
Killed a man! The thought persisted. Yes. He had killed a man only the day before. And that man had sworn—what was it be had sworn? The exact words of the dying Ormsby came back to him with amazing vividness.
“I’ll get you for this if I have to break out of hell to do it.”
Could a man break out of hell, or wherever his spirit might chance to go? Could the dead return to wreak vengeance on those who had wronged them! He wondered, then urged his horse forward with renewed frenzy as the sharp clatter of hoof-beats sounded close behind him.
It seemed, however, that with the first staccato click of those pursuing hoofs the horse needed no urging. The frightened beast leaped forward with ears laid back and nostrils distended as if running for its very life. But despite the speed he was making, the increasing distinctness of the sounds behind him told Big Bill that his pursuer was gaining on him—gaining with amazing rapidity.
He expected to hear a command to halt or feel a bullet between his shoulder-blades at any moment He feared to go on, feared to stop—even feared to turn and look at his pursuer. The suspense was nerve-wracking.
Well. It would soon be a matter of his life or that of the sheriff. Undoubtedly be had shot a man and, if taken for it, would surely swing. His forty-five was gone, but he still had his derringer. With an oath he snatched it from his pocket and swung in the saddle. His pursuer was less than fifty feet behind, and Big Bill seldom missed at fifty feet He raised the tiny weapon and fired. Then, seeing that the bullet had not taken effect, he cursed and fired again. His pursuer came on, sitting bolt upright in the saddle, apparently unmoved.
There was something strange about the appearance of the oncoming man and beast—something terrifying, appalling. He had not noticed it at first, but the realization suddenly burned itself into his consciousness. The horse was strangely familiar and the man—only one man he had ever known wore his Stetson creased thus and at that peculiar, jaunty angle. And that man was dead—murdered. Again the words of the slain Ormsby came back to him:
“I’ll get you for this if I have to break out of hell to do it.”
He strained his eyes in an attempt to pierce the semi-darkness. Suddenly the moon peered from behind a rapidly-moving cloud—and he knew…
The derringer dropped from his nerveless fingers. A queer choking feeling paralyzed his throat. He passed his hand before his eyes and looked again. The vision persisted.
Nearer and nearer came that silent, relentless pursuer. With a shudder of horror Big Bill saw that he or it was uncoiling a lariat.
The loop widened, whirled about that ghostly head and shot through the air. Big Bill ducked, then uttered a shriek of mortal terror that ended in a gurgling, agonized wail as the rope settled and tightened about his throat. For a moment he felt himself dangling in empty air—then all went black…
Early the following morning two cowpunchers from the Bar L Ranch rode into Red Dog. One carried an extra saddle and bridle, the other the rapidly stiffening body of Big Bill Hawkins.
They were quickly surrounded by a crowd of curious onlookers, foremost among whom was the sheriff.
“Where’d you find him? What happened!” asked the sheriff, as two men assisted in lowering the corpse to the ground.
The cowboy whose horse had borne the body dismounted.
“Dangdest queerest thing I ever seen,” he said. “We found Big Bill and his horse lying at the bottom of a ravine. Bill was dead and the horse had broken both forelegs, so we shot him.”
“But what killed Bill?”
“As near as I can make out, he was roped and strangled. There’s a rope burn around his neck and he don’t seem to have no broken bones or other injuries.”
“Who follered Big Bill out of Red Dog last night!” demanded the sheriff, facing the crowd.
“No one follered him,” volunteered a prospector. “I seen him come out and ride away alone.”
“Whoever got him,” continued the cowboy, “must’ve left in an airship.”
“An airship! What do you mean!”
“Well, me and my pardner went up to the top of the ravine to try and find out what happened. We saw the tracks of Bill’s horse where he had come runnin’ up and plunged over the edge. Beside them was the trail of another horse that ended in a four-track slidin’ square like your bronc’ makes when you rope a steer.”
“And where did they go from there!”
“That’s just the point. We hunted high and low and circled the place for a hundred yards in every direction. There wasn’t a single track of horse or man leading away from the place where Bill Hawkins died!”
Jan 25 2020
Rank #6: PseudoPod 526: The Great American Nightmare
- Author : Moaner T. Lawrence
- Narrator : John Bell
- Host : Alasdair Stuart
- Audio Producer : Graeme Dunlop
- Discuss on Forums
PseudoPod 526: The Great American Nightmare is a PseudoPod original.
“One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.” – Plato
“They who can give up essential liberty for temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” – Benjamin Franklin
The Great American Nightmare
by Moaner T. Lawrence
The sky over 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue was clear and blue at 12:00PM EST on Friday, January 20th, 2017. At 12:01, a fleet of Secret Service byakhee swarmed over the abstract visage of what was once The White House. Faster and faster, they beat their jet black wings, until the unholy force tore a hole in the sky. It became a swirling vortex, and the composer Erich Zann, considered missing for over 120 years, began conducting a chorus of six-foot albino penguins, alongside the United States Marine Band to a discordant rendition of Hail, Columbia. Opposite the band, a crowd of three million attendants held fast to a double-reinforced security railing, or anything else they could grab onto, so as to bear witness to the spectacle before them without being sucked into the portal forming above.
Jan 20 2017
Rank #7: PseudoPod 479: ARTEMIS RISING Women In Horror Showcase: Like Dolls
- Author : J. Lily Corbie
- Narrator : Kim Lakin-Smith
- Host : Marguerite Kenner
- Audio Producer : Chelsea Davis
- Artist : Galen Dara
- Discuss on Forums
PseudoPod 479: ARTEMIS RISING Women In Horror Showcase: Like Dolls is a PseudoPod original.
Like Dolls started as a meditation on the other side of the ‘wailing on your grave’ subgenre of folk music, such as I Am Stretched on Your Grave and The Unquiet Grave. Not only is Like Dolls a Pseudopod original, but also the author’s first professional publication sale. PseudoPod couldn’t be prouder to introduce you to this author.
by J. Lily Corbie
I am awake. Through the trappings of a funeral and the clods of earth raining upon me, I am aware. When my father kneels at my headstone and calls me his willful girl, I hear him. When Meredith weeps and lays poppies on my grave, I know. When they are gone, I am at rest.
The dark is absolute. I know my eyes are open–curious fingers encounter the wet resistance of eye, feel the brush of eyelashes with each blink. I suffer neither thirst nor hunger, and though my chest still fills and empties, I want for nothing. I am somnolent, content with my eternity.
Only Bastian’s voice interrupts my peace.
At the service, he threw himself across my coffin and wailed. He wasn’t mourning–he was claiming my funeral with his grief. Now he lays himself along my grave. He weeps and he laments, and I feel his weight through earth and wood. I am reminded, time and again, that not even my death belongs to me.
The post PseudoPod 479: ARTEMIS RISING Women In Horror Showcase: Like Dolls appeared first on PseudoPod.
Feb 26 2016
Rank #8: PseudoPod 582: The Monster
- Author : Crystal Connor
- Narrator : Stephanie Malia Morris
- Host : Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali
- Audio Producer : Chelsea Davis
- Discuss on Forums
“The Monster” was originally printed in Strange Tales of Horror in 2011, and then reprinted in Crystal’s collection And They All Lived Happily Ever After! as well as the anthology Sycorax’s Daughters (where we ran across this)
Content Warning:Spoiler Inside
The author’s inspiration for this story:Spoiler Inside
The idea from this story came from two different incidents. Years ago when I was learning how to rollerblade I was cruising along Alki Beach. I was going faster than I should have because I hadn’t learned how to stop yet. So there was a car pulling out of the marina but he was looking the other way and didn’t see me and because I didn’t know how to stop I sped up. I passed in front of the car with only a half a foot between us and slammed into the back of a mountain of a man who was on the other side of the driveway. When he turned around I instantly regretted it as he had the words ‘WHITE’ and ‘POWER’ tattooed on each forearm and a large swastika tattooed on the side of his neck and he was huge and he looked at me like a concerned parent.
As he was helping to … the grass he bellowed at the driver, “What the hell is wrong with you, you coulda killed somebody!” Ok, so at this point there was maybe nine or ten other Hell’s Angel type of biker guys running from the bar across the street to their brother’s aide. The poor Mexican kid behind the wheel drove away.
Now I am surrounded by a bunch of men with racist tattoos, one of which who is kneeling at my feet and unlacing my skates, everyone is asking me if I was ok and I was so terrified by these guys I started crying. My tears prompted an even bigger man than the one I knocked the wind out of to send his girlfriend, named Spider, back into the bar to get me a glass of water. Another man helped me to my feet and asked me if I wanted a ride somewhere, and I said no, explaining that my car was parked only nine cars down. When Spider came back she handed me a can of lemonade, after promising everyone I was ok, and apologizing to “Mountain” for slamming into him I was allowed to leave.
Never in my life, as I walked barefoot on the hot pavement back to my car carrying my skates and lemonade, had I been so confused.
The second incident was day I sat down and wrote The Monster. There are some parts of my state that do not celebrate diversity and I was in one of those parts and had to stop for gas. The station is exactly like the one I wrote about, when I was going inside a guy was coming out, he wasn’t wearing a shirt because it warm that day, and he is the guy I based Caleb on, down to the last detail.
My heart started beating so fast that I thought I was gonna have a heart attack and this was my prayer please dear God, I can deal with anything he says to me, just don’t let him hit me. Not only did he not hit me, he didn’t say anything to me either. He opened his candy and waited for me because he was holding the door. I said thank you as I walked by him and he just nodded his head, jumped in his pick-up truck and left. I was like what in the hell. That encounter reminded me of the one years earlier and on the drive home I was left to wonder what makes a person abandon their oath? I pledged to protect this country against enemies both foreign and domestic and that’s a pretty big deal but so is walking around proudly displaying a swastika tattoo.
When I got home I wrote The Monster and I’ve been so surprised and amazed by the feedback I’ve received for this story.
By Crystal Connor
After only four days of what was supposed to be a two-week visit, Maleka Davidson was leaving Alabama. Maleka hated this place. She was disgusted by the ignorance of poverty. The stifling heat reduced her to the sin of sloth. Her head hurt from trying to decipher these coded Southern sayings. Just last night, she figured out that the word Bard meant borrowed, Southern translation for the state of Georgia was Jawjuh, and that she was from the Nawth as in, and I quote, “Ya’ people from up Nawth sure do talk funny.” It was almost as if she needed an English-to-Southern-United-States dictionary.
Maleka was tired of eating fried food and drinking either grape or red Kool-Aid made with three cups of sugar, despite the directions clearly stating that only one cup was needed. Maleka was especially terrified of all the large and strange bugs that could star in their own horror movies. Maleka took a break from packing; even the slightest of physical activities made her sweat profusely. She lay on the bed and smiled about the conversation she had had with her uncle this morning at breakfast, revolving around the apparently sacred origins of grits.
“Maleka, y’all eat grits up Nawth?” Bryannah asked.
“Of course we do,” Maleka explained to her 12-year-old cousin. “There are quite a few farms within driving distance of Seattle that grow corn, but that…”
Bryannah looked puzzled and Uncle Emmit angrily interjected before Maleka could continue.
“Ain’t nothing as good as grits can be made from corn! Dontcha read yo’ bible?”
“Exodus 16:15. What poured down upon hims chirren when they was roamin’ roun’ in dem woods was grits. It says so right in da Bible, ‘It’s the food the LORD has given you to eat.’
“So the manna that God rained on the Israelites on Mount Sinai was really grits?” Maleka asked slowly.
“Ain’t is what I said?”
Why not? Maleka had spent the last year fighting in the streets of a foreign country because someone had misinterpreted the holy writings of an ancient text, so why should it be any different right here at home? Using her toast as a spoon, Maleka took another bite of the buttery, salted grits and smiled. It was no wonder her uncle had mistaken them for ambrosia. Uncle Emmit went on to explain that after the miracle on Mount Sinai, there was no mention of grits for another 1,000 years. Experts, he explained, found evidence that grits were only used during secret religious ceremonies – and were kept away from the public due to their rarity.
The next mention of grits, he continued, “Was found in all dem ashes over there in Pompell in a famous woman’s diary.”
“Do you mean the ruins of Pompeii? What famous woman?” Maleka inquired.
“Girl, you just as slow as molasses running downhill in January. Aunt Jemima.”
And if it wasn’t Uncle Emmit’s wild stories that re-invented history, it was her auntie Tammy’s constant complaint of how nothing made sense.
“Look at this damn blue bird sitting his ass upon that Goddamned tree branch! Look at him; that’s a damn shame. It just don’t make no damn sense!” No one offered that birds were supposed to be in trees; everyone just chuckled and shook their heads, and Maleka did the same.
Maleka knew she was going to miss them but she just couldn’t stay in the South. She was mortified that her extended family members, and their neighbors and friends seemed to perpetuate the negative stereotypes of blacks in the South. In her family’s defense, the whites down here didn’t seem much better. With their UFOs, swamp monsters, unfounded fear of the government, pickup trucks, and Confederate battle flags, Maleka couldn’t help but hear that banjo song from the movie Deliverance every time she listened to them talk.
The most unsettling thing about being in the South for Maleka was everyone’s devout belief in superstitions, and truth be told, this was the real reason she was leaving.
The woman who lived across the street from her grandmother’s house always dragged a broom behind her wherever she walked when she left the house, even if it was only to check the mail. When Maleka asked her great-grand-aunt why she did that, she was told, “Cuz she dohn wants deze fixuhs tuh git her foot track.” Maleka knew what fixuhs were before she had a chance to unpack. Fixuhs were evil spirits, and apparently, they were everywhere.
The first night Maleka stayed in her grandmother’s house, she noticed a broom upside down by her bedroom door. When she took the broom into the kitchen to put it away, pandemonium broke out.
Her cousin Maybell explained that the broom was placed outside her door to protect her from the hags, and that this protection was necessary because she had seen a hag with her own two eyes. Maleka thought if she drank as much as her cousin did, she would probably see things too. Not only were there hags but also there were signs, omens, dreams, mojo rings, witches, wearing a dime around your ankle, charms, talismans, myths and swamp monsters. Maleka’s sleep was unrestful, and during the day, she was jumpy and on edge.
“You all packed and ready to go?”
Maleka jumped nearly five feet off the bed at the sound of Leticia’s voice, and her cousin laughed until tears rained down her beautiful ebony face.
“Girl,” Leticia said as soon as she caught her breath. “You is just as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full o’ rocking chairs.”
“I must have dozed off; I didn’t hear you come in.” Maleka said through her smile. “Yeah, I’m almost done. I really didn’t have that much stuff to pack anyway.”
Leticia sat on the bed next to Maleka and pushed herself back until she was resting against the wall. Maleka did the same.
“You really can’t stay no longer?”
“Ticia, it’s so hot down here, I can barely think. Hey, why don’t you come up to Seattle? Once I get home and settled, I can buy you a plane ticket. You can stay as long as you like. I think you’ll like it. It’s really pretty, there’s lots of water, and its cool.”
“Girl, I ain’t never been on no airplane before.”
Maleka could hear the fear in her cousin’s voice. The two were the same age, 28, but her cousin had never traveled outside of her county.
“So? There’s a first time for everything. You can catch the Greyhound … I know! What about Amtrak? That’ll be cool … to ride the train across the country; I can even get you your own private cabin!”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, just think about it. OK?”
Both girls looked toward the door as their grandmother walked through it. Fat Mike was behind her, carrying a large Styrofoam cooler that looked heavy, even for him. Her grandmother had packed a feast that would have fed an army for a month.
The cooler was filled with fried-pork-chop sandwiches with mayo and hot sauce, buttermilk fried chicken, scuppernongs, Maypops, onion-and-tomato sandwiches, potato salad and macaroni salad, cracklings and half a dozen banana moon pies.
“Grandma, this is too much food. I’ll be home in just a few days.” Maleka really wasn’t protesting, because her grandmother had packed all of her favorite food, even if it was more than she could eat in just a few days.
Fat Mike went to load her car, and her grandmother sat on the edge of the rickety bed and touched Maleka’s face before she started talking.
“Now don’t you go wandering too far off de road, don’t let darkness catch ya’ and stay out dem woods at all cost. If you hear a chain rattlin’ on de tree, you best be movin’ along, cuz it might be a plat-eye.”
Great, Maleka thought. Just what I need, another Southern monster. She had no idea what a plat-eye was, and she wasn’t going to ask. She didn’t want to know. All she wanted was to be back in the Great Pacific Northwest where all she had to worry about was good old-fashion ghosts, Bigfoot, and the occasional serial killer.
Her grandmother handed Maleka a small burlap sack tied closed with a piece of twine. “Keep this witchya at all times, no matter what happens.”
Maleka took the little bag with trembling hands. She didn’t want to take this with her; she didn’t even want to touch it. This was what she wanted to get away from in the first place. Maleka dropped the amulet of protection into her handbag and gave her grandmother a big hug and kissed her goodbye.
On the winding road that seemed to stretch on forever, Maleka saw a filling station that looked like it hadn’t been updated or remodeled in the last 100 years. She even heard the cheerful “ding-ding” as she pulled up to the pump. The breeze in the wake of a passing semi felt good against her sticky skin. She was grateful for the cooler temperatures that were chasing the submerging rays of the sunset.
Maleka bought two bags of ice, a six-pack of Coke, oil, and a road map she had GPS on her cell phone, but she hadn’t had a signal in almost three hours. Maleka also bought 45 dollars’ worth of gas and some candy. The old man smiled at her as she dumped her stuff in front of him to ring up. Maleka returned his smile while looking away from his blue running eyes, wrinkled skin and broken teeth. As Maleka was rummaging through her purse for cash, because Visa wasn’t really everywhere that she wanted to be, the charm her grandmother gave her tumbled out on to the vintage countertop.
Maleka had made it halfway back to her car before the old attendant came chasing out behind her.
“Hey, girl, wait a minute, you done left yo charm.”
Maleka turned to the sound of his voice and almost ran from the man who was holding the small bag her grandmother had given her. When he extended it for her to take, she flinched away from it.
“Oh. Thank you, sir, but I don’t think I need it.”
The man looked at Maleka with a flash of anger and it was clear that he was personally offended by Maleka’s fear of it.
“Your peoples gave this to you for good reason. You need it for protection. I reckon you a long way from home, so I suggest that you take this with you.”
Maleka took a step away from the man and shook her head.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea to mess with stuff you don’t understand.”
“Girl you don’t have to believe but you can’t afford not to listen.” The man warned as he walked up to her and dropped the charm into one of her bags.
Maleka slowly turned around and walked away from him, so shaken up that she almost forgot to pump her gas. She drained her cooler, crammed in the six cans of Coke, and replaced the melted ice. She added oil to her car, opened the map, charted her course, and cursed the non-existent signal on her phone. As Maleka was placing the trash into the plastic bags, her attention was once again drawn to the charm resting at the bottom. She tossed all the trash on top of it, balled up the bags, and threw them away. As she sped away, she noticed the old man watching her leave from the window.
Maleka had been driving in the dark for almost two hours. When she first learned how to drive the freeway scared her the most, but when her stepfather took her on her first night drive she was calm and confident.
When they drove at night, there was really no need for his instructions, so he just let her drive. The night lessons were Maleka’s favorite time with her stepfather. He didn’t warn her about the dangers of boys, drugs and alcohol, he did not bitch at her for not doing her chores or getting just a C on her math test, or quiz her about military terminology. It was just she and Dad spending a few hours at night driving under a blanket of stars. Maleka had always enjoyed driving at night; she appreciated the solitude and welcomed the memories.
She could have shot herself for tilting her head all the way back to drink the last of the Coke. She looked back at the road in time to see a deer bolt out in front of her car and freeze just a few feet ahead of her. Despite everything she had been taught and had heard, Maleka slammed on the brakes and yanked her wheel heavily to the right. Her car slid off the pavement and lost traction in the gravel. She tried to right herself but overcorrected, sending the vehicle over the yellow line. As she fought the car to avoid any oncoming traffic on the two-lane stretch of road, the car returned to the correct lane before leaving the road, going into a ditch, and slamming into a tree.
Maleka put the car in park but left the engine running, afraid that if she turned it off, she wouldn’t be able to restart it. The front of the car was damaged, but not badly enough to deploy the airbags. She rubbed her head, unhooked her seat belt, and snatched her cell phone off the floor in front of the seat next to her.
“Fuck!” Maleka threw the phone back on the floor with such force that it bounced up and landed on the passenger seat. Maleka pounded on the steering wheel and looked into the rearview mirror.
The deer was still standing in the middle of the road. It turned its head as if to look in the direction behind them before returning its gaze to the car. The deer raised its head to the sky, and Maleka watched the antlers of the large animal retract back into its head.
That’s not what you saw; you hit your head pretty hard, and your vision is blurry. That isn’t what you just saw.
Maleka watched the deer stand on its hind legs and take the form of a man. He started to walk slowly toward the car.
Don’t let darkness catch ya and stay out dem woods at all cost.
Maleka grabbed the rear view mirror and moved it so that she could watch the man approaching as she reached beneath her seat for her gun. Without taking her eyes off of the man in the rearview mirror, Maleka put her car in reverse and then back in drive and back again until she gently rocked her car out of the ditch.
Only when she got the car back on the road did she take her eyes off the man. She pulled away slowly, but as she picked up speed, the front bumper, which was being dragged beneath the car, punctured a tire. The car began to wobble before it took a nose dive to the right, the tire so damaged that she was driving on the rim. She drove another 200 feet before the car died completely. She was on a slight decline, so she let the car coast down a bit, then steered the car off to the side of the road when she felt it losing momentum.
A quick glance in both the side and rearview mirrors did not reveal the man’s whereabouts, but she knew he was still coming.
Maleka took a deep breath and let her training take over. Her mother taught her how to shoot with a Smith & Wesson model 29.44 Magnum, and her Uncle Sam had given her a badge marked “expert.”
The wonder nine that Maleka held in her hands was Smith & Wesson’s M&P, with a 17-round capacity, and a velocity 100 feet per second above what was advertised. Maleka had no doubt of the weapon’s capability, but she couldn’t shake the feeling that she needed something more.
Keep this witchya at all times no matter what happens.
She pulled the lever on her seat until the headrest was lying on the back seat, then turned around, pressed her back into the steering wheel, and waited for the man, deer, or whatever the hell it was that caused this accident, to close the distance between them.
Maleka reached over, opened the glove box, and grabbed the four extra high-capacity magazines. She grabbed the phone off of the passenger seat and shoved the clips and phone into the back pockets of her blue jeans. It wasn’t long after that she saw the top of the man’s head crest the hill.
“Guard me, O Lord, from the hands of the wicked; protect me from the violent …” Maleka’s prayer was interrupted by movement on the edges of her peripheral vision. Maleka was hesitant to take her eyes off of the approaching man, but whatever was on the other side of the road was closer to her than he was. Her eyes slowly traveled to the view outside of her driver’s-side window. Her eyes seemed to almost drag her head with them. Blurs of black and gray shapes became sharp lines, defined images … more deer, methodically taking the shape of man.
“Deliver me from those who work evil; from the bloodthirsty, save me.” As if adding an exclamation point to her prayer, she pulled the trigger, killing a beast whose metamorphosis was nearly complete.
The rear window imploded. In the rain of broken glass and shadows Maleka fired six more rounds in rapid succession, crawled to the passenger side of her car, and ran into the deep, tangled abyss that is the Alabama wilderness.
Don’t let darkness catch ya’, and stay out dem woods at all cost.
The tree-lined paved road was lit by stars, but Maleka was plunged into absolute darkness once she entered the forest. After nearly tripping and breaking her ankle, Maleka kicked off her flip-flops and immediately gained speed. It was a double-edged sword, as her tender spa-pampered feet quickly yielded to the unforgiving rough terrain of sharp rocks, jagged twigs, and tangled and knotted tree roots that carpeted the floor of the wilderness.
As she ran, she unbuckled her belt and threaded her gun through it so that she wouldn’t lose it. She refastened the belt loose; the gun beat against her thigh as she ran, but she wanted to be able to maneuver her weapon freely when she needed to.
Instinctively, she stopped running. Maleka slowly, blindly, extended her hand out in front of her, and before her arm was fully outstretched, her fingertips brushed against the rough bark of a large tree. Maleka stepped closer, put her cheek against the tree, and then extended her arms outward as if to give the tree a hug. With her arms fully extended, the tips of her stretched and exploring fingers still felt bark on both sides.
Maleka kept her right hand on the tree and used her left hand as a feeler to detect any other large objects in front of her, until the large timber that blocked her path was behind her.
Her fear heightened her sense of awareness, and her deprivation of sight sharpened her ability to hear, Maleka found it easier to just close her eyes rather than peer into the darkness. She controlled her breathing and concentrated on the muted sounds of the forest.
The terrain underfoot became soft. Instead of rocks, pinecones, and fallen branches, Maleka felt leaves, moss, and mud. She stood still, cocked her head, and listened. The absence of sound alarmed her, but she continued to walk, slowly at first, then faster and faster until she was once again running at full tilt.
The ground was soft and soundless, but as she picked up speed, she heard branches snapping behind her to her left. Hoping to achieve the same level of strength, speed, and victory as the Greek Goddess Nike, Maleka ran. And ran, and ran.
And slammed into a low-hanging branch.
There was a flash of bright light around the edges of her vision, her feet swung out from under her, and she landed on her back. Her lower back just above her tailbone exploded in pain as it came into contact with a fallen log, and as her head bounced off the ground, Maleka bit her tongue. Running headlong into a thick branch had caused worse injuries than the car accident.
Maleka swallowed blood and listened to the sounds of the forest. Nothing.
She performed a quick mental diagnostic of her body and categorized her injuries.
She told herself she was fine and slowly sat up. Without warning, it started raining, not the light misty drizzle that she was accustomed to in Seattle, but a hard and heavy downpour of torrential rain of biblical proportions.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” Maleka screamed up to the heavens. “Is this your idea of a joke? Well I don’t think it’s funny! Didn’t you hear me calling you for help?”
Maleka was standing, though she did not remember the physical act of standing up. Her hands were balled into tight fists, and she was defiantly staring into the night sky and blinking away the rain. A voice in her head suggested that maybe this was not the way she should be talking to God, but she was so desperately angry and so thoroughly terrified that she couldn’t stop herself.
“Give me a fucking break, answer my prayer, do something! I’m not asking you to part the sea; I’m just asking for a little help. Is that asking for too much? Are you there?”
God did not answer her. She couldn’t hear anything over the rain. She still couldn’t see anything, but she didn’t want to just stand there, so despite nearly having been decapitated, Maleka started running. She counted her steps as she ran. There were 2,112 military steps in one mile with a 30-inch step. Maleka’s running stride was 70 inches, so she knew she had run nearly two miles since plowing into that tree.
The soft mud that had padded Maleka’s footfalls was now an enemy combatant. Encouraged by the rain, the mud became thick and hostile, her feet were buried to her ankles with each step, she had to use force to wrangle her foot free, and before she knew it, she was calf deep in mud.
“This is fucking bullshit.”
Maleka took a deep breath, turned around, and slowly made her way out of the deep mud. A bolt of lightning arched across the sky. In the flash of light, Maleka saw that she was in a small valley. It took Maleka almost a full minute to register what she had seen on the valley ridge.
Her pursuers had morphed themselves into one of the most feared and formidable canines on both the face of the planet and in the depths of nightmares.
Maleka now had to run from a pack of dogs that had the ability to run at speeds of at least 40 miles per hour and sustain those speeds for several miles at a time.
Though there was nothing remotely humorous in Maleka’s situation, she started laughing.
Maleka bolted away from the descending predators. It took her ninety steps to reach the slight incline that marked the valley wall. Digging in with hands, forearms, knees, and feet, she scrambled up the hill. When she reached flat land, she stood up and ran. Maleka counted sixty steps before she tripped over an exposed tree root. She reached out with her hands to break her fall, but she kept falling.
Maleka slammed to the ground on her shoulder and began to tumble, roll, and slide. Once again, she was laughing, and she received a mouthful of dirt, leaves, and, to her utter horror, a bug. She hated watching the damsel in distress trip and fall in horror movies, and yet here she was falling for the second time.
Did she see lights? Maleka slid to a stop on her face, stood up, and ran. She did see lights. The lights that shone through the window of the cabin were like a beacon promising a safe haven from this storm.
She could hear the footsteps of the dogs behind her. She thought she heard them running past her as well, and knew that they were racing ahead to cut her off and surround her.
With every breath she took, she inhaled fire. Both of her feet were swollen, cut, and bleeding. Pain exploded from her feet to her jaw with each step she took. Her hands, arms, and face were scratched and cut. The pain in her side was so intense, she might as well have been pierced by the Spear of Destiny. The trees blocked out the light of the moon. It was so dark that she couldn’t even see the tips of her fingers on her outstretched arms. She’d just returned home from the war and was in excellent physical condition; otherwise, she would have been caught two miles ago. She kept running. She ran faster.
She was so close that the warm light glowing in the window offered her enough light to see the edges of her surroundings, but she didn’t look at what was moving within the shadows. She jumped over the four steps of the cabin’s patio and slammed her shoulder into the door, expecting resistance, but with one turn of the knob, the door opened.
The rug slid under her feet and she almost fell … again. As Maleka regained her balance, the only thing she saw was a pair of denim-blue eyes. It took three seconds for Maleka’s vision to pan out, allowing the panoramic view of the inside of the cabin to come into focus.
The man she was looking at was shirtless and tattooed. On his broad and chiseled chest was an eagle in flight, and clutched within its mighty talons was a large swastika. The man was sitting in a chair, his foot on the edge of the table, and his chair was tipped back on the two hind legs. Covering the wall he was against was a large Confederate battle flag – an image that, for the majority of black people living in the United States, is a symbol of racism. His hair might have been red or blond, but his head was shaved. He wasn’t alone. Another man stood by the window, and yet another sat on a small sofa directly in front of the man she had first seen.
Maleka spun around, slammed the door closed, and engaged the deadbolt.
Once the door was closed, she saw a large chair. It was as heavy as it looked, and she had to use all her strength to drag it to the door and position the chair under the door handle. Maleka stumbled a few steps back and turned to face the men she had locked herself inside with.
For almost five minutes, no one spoke.
She pressed her hand to the pain in her side and took a closer look at the guy by the window. He wasn’t standing, as she first thought; he was sitting on top of some type of cabinet. He had a huge sucker in his mouth, and she could smell the cherry scent of the candy from the other side of the room. He had the same denim colored eyes as the one leaning back in his chair. He wasn’t completely bald, because his red hair had grown out a little. It reminded Maleka of a peach.
The thought of such a juicy fruit only served to underscore the dryness of her parched throat. As if reading her mind, he tightened the cap on his bottle of water and tossed it to Maleka. She drank it down greedily. Cool water ran down the sides of her mouth as she drank, as much as she could before she started coughing.
Both of the man’s arms from shoulder to wrist were covered in colorful, incredibly detailed tattoos, but what stood out the most were the flags. On the inside of his upper right arm, near his chest, was a tattoo of a red flag with a black swastika in the center. On the left was the American flag. The man sitting on the couch wore a Dewalt wife-beater and was wearing a ball cap that read, “The South shall rise again.” At first she thought they all looked the same, but it was clear to her that the one leaning back in his chair and the one in the window were related, possibly brothers.
The cabin was just one big square room, the kitchen was along the wall to her left, and the view from that window was of more woods. A large brick fireplace sat in the center of the widest wall, and there was a door off to the side that Maleka guessed to be a bathroom. There were three sleeping bags rolled up in the corner along with three backpacks and a slew of hunting rifles.
Along the wall above the couch hung pictures of Hitler standing in a moving Jeep, bikini-clad blond women displaying tools, and redheads posing with cars. There was also a poster of the University of Alabama football team running on the field. Maleka was surprised to see that poster hanging so proudly, as most of the players in the poster were black.
Finally, the guy in the window swirled his candy to one side of his mouth and asked, “So what the fuck are you running from to make you think you’re safer in here with us than out there with a gun strapped to your belt?”
“A pack of wolves,” Maleka answered.
“No ma’am, you might wanna try that again. We ain’t got no wolves down here.” The candy man explained.
“I know, but they weren’t wolves at first.” Maleka’s thoughts were jumbled and confused, and so were her words. She heard herself talking and was afraid that she wasn’t making any sense.
“See, she told me to keep it with me, then I didn’t think I needed it, so I threw it away.”
“You threw what away?”
“I really didn’t think it would do any good; it’s just a stupid superstition.”
He slowly took the candy out of his mouth and asked again, “You threw what away?”
“The man at the gas station tried to give it back to me, but I didn’t take it.”
“HEY!” he shouted. “Do you hear me fucking talking to you? I’m not going to ask you again. What did you throw away?”
“The charm?” He echoed. “What charm, what was it for?”
Maleka noticed how his eyes lowered to the gold cross she was wearing around her neck as he asked the question.
“It was to protect me from the monster.”
The man leaning in the chair slowly lowered it back to all four legs, and the one on the couch took off his ball cap and ran his hand through his thick blond hair. As his blond locks unraveled to fall against his sculpted shoulders, Maleka knew without a doubt that this man was a direct descendant of Thor.
Maleka could see the conversation the men were having with their eyes, but she had no idea what they were saying.
“Travis, she’s high. She’s probably from California, and they say they got some good-ass weed out there.”
The three of them shared a laugh as Travis put the candy back in his mouth and leaned against the window.
“I’m not high, and I’m not from California,” Maleka hissed.
Travis shrugged his shoulders. “That might be so, girl, but you ain’t from around here. You say you ain’t high, but you done spooked yourself so bad you ain’t thinking straight, and you ain’t making no damn sense, so I can’t tell either way.”
“I scared myself?” Maleka was furious.
“What you was running from is most likely coyotes.”
“I know the fucking difference between a wolf and a coyote,” she started, but the man in the chair interrupted her.
“Really, Big City? Because you said they weren’t wolves at first, so what were they then, dingos?”
“Fuck you too, you stupid fucking nigger cunt bitch! There ain’t no fucking wolves down here. The only dogs we have out there in our woods are the coyote and maybe … maybe a pack of strays. You was running through the woods at night. It’s dark out there, and the woods has a way of playing tricks with your senses. You was just seeing things.”
“Caleb’s right,” Travis explained. “You fucking people are all the same; you come down South and act like it’s a trip to the fucking zoo. Y’all come down here so that you can laugh at us ignorant, po’ white trash, redneck hillbillies, and point at the dumbass country niggers.”
“Y’all watch movies like Deliverance and think we’re just a bunch of inbreeds sitting down here making moonshine, playing banjos, eating fried chicken and spitting out watermelon seeds. Then the next thing you know, y’all is running through the woods in the middle of the night, shooting at shadows and running from dogs that are expecting to be hand fed.”
More laughter. Maleka started to say something, but stopped. She turned her head toward the door. The others heard it too. Scratching. The door shook gently. Something heavy landed on the roof, and the ceiling creaked in protest under the weight of whatever was walking across it. Everyone looked up at once.
The door shook again, forcefully this time. Travis tracked the footsteps on the roof with his head, leaning farther and farther back until he was looking directly above him.
There was a long deep howl lasting almost 10 seconds before the others in the pack answered the call.
Everyone started moving at once. Maleka unhooked her gun from her belt and reached into her pockets for the extra clips. Without taking his eyes off the ceiling, Travis stood, slowly turned around, and closed the interior shutters.
Caleb grabbed the hunting rifles that had been leaning against the fireplace. The man sitting on the couch flew past Maleka to close the shutters in the kitchen. He closed them in the nick of time. The glass in the kitchen window shattered, but the shutter was not breached.
“Ryan,” Caleb called and tossed a rifle to the man who now stood behind Maleka.
The silence that followed was deafening. With the enveloping hush, everyone looked at Maleka, who was looking at Caleb with a look that said I told you so.
When Maleka had first tried to explain the night’s events Travis thought it was a joke. Now he thought it was her fault. He flew from the window to loom over her.
“You fucking threw the Goddamn charm away? You just fucking threw it away?”
Travis was a whole foot taller than Maleka, and as he screamed down at her, she realized that the candy he had had in his mouth was not cherry flavored but, in fact, strawberry.
Neither his size nor his proximity intimidated Maleka, since both were to her advantage. Her situational awareness was acute. Maleka had mentally established that inside the cabin was her zone of security, and she knew where everything was.
From a very early age, Caleb had developed a healthy fear of women and learned to never underestimate their capacity for brutality nor be surprised by the vicious glee with which they carried out their monstrous deeds. Caleb did not like the way the girl’s demeanor had changed, and though he couldn’t pinpoint what had changed he just knew something had.
“If you knew it was to keep you safe, why did you fucking throw it away?”
She knew how much room she had to maneuver. She knew how many steps it would take to reach Caleb, understood that he would have to be the next one neutralized, because under no circumstances was she going back outside into unfamiliar terrain while it was dark.
With eight older sisters, a mother who was acquitted for the slaughter of his father, and having served a ten-year prison sentence for killing a woman who was doing her best to kill him, Caleb had firsthand knowledge of how truly cruel and dangerous a woman could be, and he understood that they were in no way, shape, or form the weaker sex.
“Y’all think y’all so much better than us, so sophisticated and educated.”
Maleka’s breathing slowed. She was unprepared to deal with deer that changed themselves into people and then changed themselves into wolves, but fighting men was what she had been trained to do, and she had seventeen confirmed kills under her belt just this year alone. Her personal best so far.
That was what it was. She was calm, almost relaxed. Travis was a big guy.
Most people who saw him coming would quickly look for the nearest exit, or cross the street. No one ever made eye contact with him, but this girl was looking him right in the eye and didn’t even flinch, and Caleb didn’t like that.
Maleka slowly slid one foot in front of the other, but kept her hands at her sides, thus assuming a basic battle stance. Close-quarters combat was Maleka’s specialty. Because of her stealth, speed, agility, and ferocity in hand-to-hand combat, comrades in her unit started calling her “the black mamba.” Most people didn’t see her coming, and those who did lacked the necessary training to defend themselves, and perished. And such would be the case with Travis.
Before he realized that he had even stood up, Caleb found himself by his brother’s side. He gently pulled Travis away from Maleka and protectively stood between them.
“What the fuck were you doing out in the woods at night for anyway?” Travis demanded over Caleb’s shoulder.
“They crashed my car.”
“Of course they fucking crashed your car! Dumbass.” Travis was furious and pacing back and forth.
“I don’t understand why you’re so upset, Travis,” Maleka taunted. “You said I was shooting at shadows and running from dogs that are expecting to be hand fed. Maybe we should open the door and give them some doggie treats and scratch their heads.”
For a frightening second, Caleb was unsure if he was going to be able to restrain his brother. He would have loved nothing more than to knock that smug smirk off her face, but Caleb had a feeling that was exactly what she wanted, and he refused to be baited.
“Travis, there are four of us in here and enough guns for us to have three each. We just have to maintain our zone of security until morning, and then we’ll be able to offer adequate cover to reach the truck. The nearest town will be our extraction point.”
Travis and Caleb looked at each other in astonishment, and Maleka fought feelings of frustration.
“Extraction point?” Travis echoed. “Are you in the Army?”
Something else jumped onto the roof. The door bulged in violently as if kicked, but the chair under the doorknob held.
“These ain’t terrorists you was shooting at out there. There ain’t no fucking extraction point, and in case you haven’t noticed, we’re surrounded. The cavalry ain’t coming, and you just fucking got us all killed.”
Maleka was losing her patience with Travis.
“I killed two of them in the street.”
“Did you kill them, or did you just shoot them?”
The voice came from behind her. Maleka pivoted 180 degrees and took three steps back so that her back was toward the door and the three men were in view full.
“You said at first they weren’t wolves, so then, what were they?”
Whatever was on the roof was now jumping, as if trying to stomp its way through. The door was kicked again and splintered along the hinges. The front-room window shattered. The noise outside sounded like breaking tree branches, and a mixture of hyena calls and wolf howls. Ryan burst into hysterical laughter, and Maleka decided it wasn’t such a good idea to have her back to the door.
“Ok, Big-City, if you have a plan to get us all outta here alive, you might want to tell us, because that would be some pretty good fucking information to have right about now.”
Before Maleka had the time to ignore Travis’s hysteria, Ryan asked his question again.
“What were they at first?”
Before Maleka had a chance to answer, Caleb offered his hypothesis. “So what are we dealing with here, werewolves? Well, if that’s the case, we’re all fucked because none of these bullets are silver.”
“Can they fucking do that? The moon’s not even full!”
As Travis’s question drifted slowly toward silence, all of the men turned to Maleka for the answer. She thought that she was going to collapse as the heavy weight of how truly dire their situation was settled upon her shoulders. As if things were not challenging enough, unlike the men in her unit, these guys were not going to just do what they were told, and Travis was already becoming a problem.
Maleka’s plan A was to stay inside the cabin until daylight, but whatever monster had chased her in here, and had been kicking the door and jumping on the roof, had a different idea. Maleka was going to have to come up with a plan B and C and a contingency plan, and she should have done that 20 minutes ago.
Maleka took Caleb’s rifle to inspect it and was disappointed at her discovery. Caleb’s weapon of choice was a Winchester Model 70. A bolt rifle.
This was the perfect weapon for a sniper – and of course to use for hunting – but the mere seconds it took to reload this gun manually would cost someone their life in a combat situation. With a quick scan of all the weapons, she knew she wouldn’t find what she was looking for.
“What’s the matter?”
Maleka handed Caleb his gun back.
“I was really hoping for a semiautomatic, or at least a gun that could have been easily converted. Even a revolver would be nice. Are there any handguns here?”
“Semiautomatic?” Caleb asked. “I guess if you’re hunting people but we came out here to hunt deer. I got a Colt .38 out in the truck.”
“My state allows the use of semiautomatic for big-game hunting,” Maleka explained. “And the last thing anyone is doing right now is going outside.”
“What’s considered big-game hunting in California … a Colombian drug lord?”
Maleka wanted nothing more than to knock Travis unconscious with the butt of his own gun, but as the best possible defense plan formulated in her mind, she knew she was going to need him.
“I’m not from California, Travis. I’m from Washington. Is there a window in the bathroom?”
“No,” they all answered at once. Finally, God had answered her prayer.
Maleka opened the door to the small bathroom and asked Ryan to drag over the chair that Caleb had been sitting in. She used the chair to hold the door open, then lined the bathtub with sleeping bags.
Because Caleb was the tallest, he was the one she put in the bathtub, and he was thankful for the padding of the sleeping bags, as he would be shooting directly over Maleka’s head from a kneeling position. Maleka wanted the gunfire aimed in such a way as to produce highest the concentration of fatalities. It was one thing to shoot at the heads of unsuspecting elk. It was another thing entirely to be shooting at moving targets that had the ability to change from one creature to another, and whose sole purpose was your demise. Travis’s position was on the ledge of the tub, and Ryan sat on the toilet. They would surround her as she sat on the floor, and her goal was to provide them with enough automatic fire to give them enough time to reload their guns.
With the men in place, Maleka moved the two floor lamps to each side of the bathroom door and used the outlets in the bathroom to plug them in. She directed the swivel heads of the lamps toward the cabin door and turned all the other lights in the cabin off. Just like a cop shining his light into your car window, not only would the bright lights of the 100-watt bulbs blind anyone, or anything, coming through the door, the intense white light directed outwards would provide a safe haven of darkness behind which they could hide.
They sat in the silent dark for almost twenty minutes, and when Travis started talking, it startled everyone.
“Caleb,” he said. “I think you’re the coolest mother-fucking man I ever met.”
The iron shutters on both windows started to rattle. Caleb cleared his throat, but when he started talking, his voice was full of emotion.
“You’ve always followed me. No matter where I went, I knew if I ever wanted my little brother, all I had to do was turn around and you’d be there. In all my life, this is the only time I wish you hadn’t followed me.”
Hearing Travis and Caleb say goodbye was more than Maleka could deal with. She had fought in four theaters in places that you would never be able to find on a map, just to be killed in her own country by a fiend that should not exist.
Keep this witchya at all times no matter what happens.
There was nothing she could do about it now, and Travis had been right all along. She indeed had killed them all. This was so unfair; it was just a stupid superstition, none of this was real. Except it was.
Maleka wasn’t just apologizing to Caleb, Travis, and Ryan. She was also apologizing to her cousin Maybell who put a broom by her bedroom door to keep her safe from the terrors that lurked in the night. She was apologizing to her grandmother, who had given her a gift that was meant to see her through on her journey, and to the gas-station attendant who knew how important it was when he tried to give it back after she left it on the counter. But more importantly, Maleka apologized to God for her earlier blasphemous display of disobedience.
With a final kick, the door broke in half, flying inwards in two pieces, and as the wind and the monsters rushed in, everyone started shooting.
Feb 16 2018
Rank #9: PseudoPod 520: Dermot
- Author : Simon Bestwick
- Narrator : Alasdair Stuart
- Host : Alasdair Stuart
- Audio Producer : Graeme Dunlop
- Discuss on Forums
“Dermot” was first printed in Black Static, Issue 24 August-September 2011.
The bus turns left off Langworthy Road and onto the approach to the A6. Just before it goes under the overpass, past the old Jewish cemetery at the top of Brindleheath Road and on past Pendleton Church, it stops and Dermot gets on.
He gets a few funny looks, does Dermot, as he climbs aboard, but then he always does. It’s hard for people to put their fingers on it. Maybe it’s the way his bald head looks a bit too big. Or the fishy largeness of his eyes behind the jar-thick spectacles. The nervous quiver of his pale lips, perhaps.
Or perhaps it’s just how pale he is. How smooth. His skin- his face, his hands- are baby-smooth and baby-soft. Like they’ve never known work, and hardly ever known light.
All that and he’s in a suit, too. Quite an old suit, and it’s not a perfect fit- maybe a size too large- but it’s neat and clean and well-maintained. Pressed. Smooth.
And of course, there’s the briefcase.
It’s old-fashioned, like something out of the ‘seventies, made out of plain brown leather. He doesn’t carry it by the handle. He hugs it close against his chest. Like a child.
Dec 10 2016
Rank #10: PseudoPod 529: Luella Miller
- Author : Mary Wilkins-Freeman
- Narrator : Julie Hoverson
- Host : Alasdair Stuart
- Audio Producer : Graeme Dunlop
- Discuss on Forums
“Luella Miller” was first published in Everybody’s Magazine, December 1902.
Pseudopod wants to direct your attention to a project by one of our Authors, Greg Stolze. This is a good time to go back and relisten to episode 317, Enzymes.
YOU is a novel, set in the universe of the democratic horror game Unknown Armies, which pits readers against a book that hates them while situating them in the person of a middle-aged businessman named Leo Evans.
Leo is divorced, a fan of racquet sports, and a cultist of the Necessary Servant—a quasi-religion he freely admits seems silly, except for the way it grants him extra senses and paranormal abilities. The chief cultist, however, is his ex-wife, and the two of them clash over a key question of what it means to truly “serve” with integrity.
In the process of hashing all this out, Leo must survive a couple attempts on his life, come to grips with an enchantment that makes him hate the person he previously loved most, and deal with lingering issues between himself and his son.
This novel is Kickstarting in February, check the trailer at www.gregstolze.com/you
by Mary Wilkins-Freeman
Close to the village street stood the one-story house in which Luella Miller, who had an evil name in the village, had dwelt. She had been dead for years, yet there were those in the village who, in spite of the clearer light which comes on a vantage-point from a long-past danger, half believed in the tale which they had heard from their childhood. In their hearts, although they scarcely would have owned it, was a survival of the wild horror and frenzied fear of their ancestors who had dwelt in the same age with Luella Miller. Young people even would stare with a shudder at the old house as they passed, and children never played around it as was their wont around an untenanted building. Not a window in the old Miller house was broken: the panes reflected the morning sunlight in patches of emerald and blue, and the latch of the sagging front door was never lifted, although no bolt secured it. Since Luella Miller had been carried out of it, the house had had no tenant except one friendless old soul who had no choice between that and the far-off shelter of the open sky. This old woman, who had survived her kindred and friends, lived in the house one week, then one morning no smoke came out of the chimney, and a body of neighbours, a score strong, entered and found her dead in her bed. There were dark whispers as to the cause of her death, and there were those who testified to an expression of fear so exalted that it showed forth the state of the departing soul upon the dead face. The old woman had been hale and hearty when she entered the house, and in seven days she was dead; it seemed that she had fallen a victim to some uncanny power. The minister talked in the pulpit with covert severity against the sin of superstition; still the belief prevailed. Not a soul in the village but would have chosen the almshouse rather than that dwelling. No vagrant, if he heard the tale, would seek shelter beneath that old roof, unhallowed by nearly half a century of superstitious fear.
There was only one person in the village who had actually known Luella Miller. That person was a woman well over eighty, but a marvel of vitality and unextinct youth. Straight as an arrow, with the spring of one recently let loose from the bow of life, she moved about the streets, and she always went to church, rain or shine. She had never married, and had lived alone for years in a house across the road from Luella Miller’s.
This woman had none of the garrulousness of age, but never in all her life had she ever held her tongue for any will save her own, and she never spared the truth when she essayed to present it. She it was who bore testimony to the life, evil, though possibly wittingly or designedly so, of Luella Miller, and to her personal appearance. When this old woman spoke—and she had the gift of description, although her thoughts were clothed in the rude vernacular of her native village—one could seem to see Luella Miller as she had really looked. According to this woman, Lydia Anderson by name, Luella Miller had been a beauty of a type rather unusual in New England. She had been a slight, pliant sort of creature, as ready with a strong yielding to fate and as unbreakable as a willow. She had glimmering lengths of straight, fair hair, which she wore softly looped round a long, lovely face. She had blue eyes full of soft pleading, little slender, clinging hands, and a wonderful grace of motion and attitude.
“Luella Miller used to sit in a way nobody else could if they sat up and studied a week of Sundays,” said Lydia Anderson, “and it was a sight to see her walk. If one of them willows over there on the edge of the brook could start up and get its roots free of the ground, and move off, it would go just the way Luella Miller used to. She had a green shot silk she used to wear, too, and a hat with green ribbon streamers, and a lace veil blowing across her face and out sideways, and a green ribbon flyin’ from her waist. That was what she came out bride in when she married Erastus Miller. Her name before she was married was Hill. There was always a sight of “l’s” in her name, married or single. Erastus Miller was good lookin’, too, better lookin’ than Luella. Sometimes I used to think that Luella wa’n’t so handsome after all. Erastus just about worshiped her. I used to know him pretty well. He lived next door to me, and we went to school together. Folks used to say he was waitin’ on me, but he wa’n’t. I never thought he was except once or twice when he said things that some girls might have suspected meant somethin’. That was before Luella came here to teach the district school. It was funny how she came to get it, for folks said she hadn’t any education, and that one of the big girls, Lottie Henderson, used to do all the teachin’ for her, while she sat back and did embroidery work on a cambric pocket-handkerchief. Lottie Henderson was a real smart girl, a splendid scholar, and she just set her eyes by Luella, as all the girls did. Lottie would have made a real smart woman, but she died when Luella had been here about a year—just faded away and died: nobody knew what ailed her. She dragged herself to that schoolhouse and helped Luella teach till the very last minute. The committee all knew how Luella didn’t do much of the work herself, but they winked at it. It wa’n’t long after Lottie died that Erastus married her. I always thought he hurried it up because she wa’n’t fit to teach. One of the big boys used to help her after Lottie died, but he hadn’t much government, and the school didn’t do very well, and Luella might have had to give it up, for the committee couldn’t have shut their eyes to things much longer. The boy that helped her was a real honest, innocent sort of fellow, and he was a good scholar, too. Folks said he overstudied, and that was the reason he was took crazy the year after Luella married, but I don’t know. And I don’t know what made Erastus Miller go into consumption of the blood the year after he was married: consumption wa’n’t in his family. He just grew weaker and weaker, and went almost bent double when he tried to wait on Luella, and he spoke feeble, like an old man. He worked terrible hard till the last trying to save up a little to leave Luella. I’ve seen him out in the worst storms on a wood-sled—he used to cut and sell wood—and he was hunched up on top lookin’ more dead than alive. Once I couldn’t stand it: I went over and helped him pitch some wood on the cart—I was always strong in my arms. I wouldn’t stop for all he told me to, and I guess he was glad enough for the help. That was only a week before he died. He fell on the kitchen floor while he was gettin’ breakfast. He always got the breakfast and let Luella lay abed. He did all the sweepin’ and the washin’ and the ironin’ and most of the cookin’. He couldn’t bear to have Luella lift her finger, and she let him do for her. She lived like a queen for all the work she did. She didn’t even do her sewin’. She said it made her shoulder ache to sew, and poor Erastus’s sister Lily used to do all her sewin’. She wa’n’t able to, either; she was never strong in her back, but she did it beautifully. She had to, to suit Luella, she was so dreadful particular. I never saw anythin’ like the fagottin’ and hemstitchin’ that Lily Miller did for Luella. She made all Luella’s weddin’ outfit, and that green silk dress, after Maria Babbit cut it. Maria she cut it for nothin’, and she did a lot more cuttin’ and fittin’ for nothin’ for Luella, too. Lily Miller went to live with Luella after Erastus died. She gave up her home, though she was real attached to it and wa’n’t a mite afraid to stay alone. She rented it and she went to live with Luella right away after the funeral.”
Then this old woman, Lydia Anderson, who remembered Luella Miller, would go on to relate the story of Lily Miller. It seemed that on the removal of Lily Miller to the house of her dead brother, to live with his widow, the village people first began to talk. This Lily Miller had been hardly past her first youth, and a most robust and blooming woman, rosy-cheeked, with curls of strong, black hair overshadowing round, candid temples and bright dark eyes. It was not six months after she had taken up her residence with her sister-in-law that her rosy colour faded and her pretty curves became wan hollows. White shadows began to show in the black rings of her hair, and the light died out of her eyes, her features sharpened, and there were pathetic lines at her mouth, which yet wore always an expression of utter sweetness and even happiness. She was devoted to her sister; there was no doubt that she loved her with her whole heart, and was perfectly content in her service. It was her sole anxiety lest she should die and leave her alone.
“The way Lily Miller used to talk about Luella was enough to make you mad and enough to make you cry,” said Lydia Anderson. “I’ve been in there sometimes toward the last when she was too feeble to cook and carried her some blanc-mange or custard—somethin’ I thought she might relish, and she’d thank me, and when I asked her how she was, say she felt better than she did yesterday, and asked me if I didn’t think she looked better, dreadful pitiful, and say poor Luella had an awful time takin’ care of her and doin’ the work—she wa’n’t strong enough to do anythin’—when all the time Luella wa’n’t liftin’ her finger and poor Lily didn’t get any care except what the neighbours gave her, and Luella eat up everythin’ that was carried in for Lily. I had it real straight that she did. Luella used to just sit and cry and do nothin’. She did act real fond of Lily, and she pined away considerable, too. There was those that thought she’d go into a decline herself. But after Lily died, her Aunt Abby Mixter came, and then Luella picked up and grew as fat and rosy as ever. But poor Aunt Abby begun to droop just the way Lily had, and I guess somebody wrote to her married daughter, Mrs. Sam Abbot, who lived in Barre, for she wrote her mother that she must leave right away and come and make her a visit, but Aunt Abby wouldn’t go. I can see her now. She was a real good-lookin’ woman, tall and large, with a big, square face and a high forehead that looked of itself kind of benevolent and good. She just tended out on Luella as if she had been a baby, and when her married daughter sent for her she wouldn’t stir one inch. She’d always thought a lot of her daughter, too, but she said Luella needed her and her married daughter didn’t. Her daughter kept writin’ and writin’, but it didn’t do any good. Finally she came, and when she saw how bad her mother looked, she broke down and cried and all but went on her knees to have her come away. She spoke her mind out to Luella, too. She told her that she’d killed her husband and everybody that had anythin’ to do with her, and she’d thank her to leave her mother alone. Luella went into hysterics, and Aunt Abby was so frightened that she called me after her daughter went. Mrs. Sam Abbot she went away fairly cryin’ out loud in the buggy, the neighbours heard her, and well she might, for she never saw her mother again alive. I went in that night when Aunt Abby called for me, standin’ in the door with her little green-checked shawl over her head. I can see her now. ‘Do come over here, Miss Anderson,’ she sung out, kind of gasping for breath. I didn’t stop for anythin’. I put over as fast as I could, and when I got there, there was Luella laughin’ and cryin’ all together, and Aunt Abby trying to hush her, and all the time she herself was white as a sheet and shakin’ so she could hardly stand. ‘For the land sakes, Mrs. Mixter,’ says I, ‘you look worse than she does. You ain’t fit to be up out of your bed.’
“‘Oh, there ain’t anythin’ the matter with me,’ says she. Then she went on talkin’ to Luella. ‘There, there, don’t, don’t, poor little lamb,’ says she. ‘Aunt Abby is here. She ain’t goin’ away and leave you. Don’t, poor little lamb.’
“‘Do leave her with me, Mrs. Mixter, and you get back to bed,’ says I, for Aunt Abby had been layin’ down considerable lately, though somehow she contrived to do the work.
“‘I’m well enough,’ says she. ‘Don’t you think she had better have the doctor, Miss Anderson?’
“‘The doctor,’ says I, ‘I think YOU had better have the doctor. I think you need him much worse than some folks I could mention.’ And I looked right straight at Luella Miller laughin’ and cryin’ and goin’ on as if she was the centre of all creation. All the time she was actin’ so—seemed as if she was too sick to sense anythin’—she was keepin’ a sharp lookout as to how we took it out of the corner of one eye. I see her. You could never cheat me about Luella Miller. Finally I got real mad and I run home and I got a bottle of valerian I had, and I poured some boilin’ hot water on a handful of catnip, and I mixed up that catnip tea with most half a wineglass of valerian, and I went with it over to Luella’s. I marched right up to Luella, a-holdin’ out of that cup, all smokin’. ‘Now,’ says I, ‘Luella Miller, ‘YOU SWALLER THIS!’
“‘What is—what is it, oh, what is it?’ she sort of screeches out. Then she goes off a-laughin’ enough to kill.
“‘Poor lamb, poor little lamb,’ says Aunt Abby, standin’ over her, all kind of tottery, and tryin’ to bathe her head with camphor.
“‘YOU SWALLER THIS RIGHT DOWN,’ says I. And I didn’t waste any ceremony. I just took hold of Luella Miller’s chin and I tipped her head back, and I caught her mouth open with laughin’, and I clapped that cup to her lips, and I fairly hollered at her: ‘Swaller, swaller, swaller!’ and she gulped it right down. She had to, and I guess it did her good. Anyhow, she stopped cryin’ and laughin’ and let me put her to bed, and she went to sleep like a baby inside of half an hour. That was more than poor Aunt Abby did. She lay awake all that night and I stayed with her, though she tried not to have me; said she wa’n’t sick enough for watchers. But I stayed, and I made some good cornmeal gruel and I fed her a teaspoon every little while all night long. It seemed to me as if she was jest dyin’ from bein’ all wore out. In the mornin’ as soon as it was light I run over to the Bisbees and sent Johnny Bisbee for the doctor. I told him to tell the doctor to hurry, and he come pretty quick. Poor Aunt Abby didn’t seem to know much of anythin’ when he got there. You couldn’t hardly tell she breathed, she was so used up. When the doctor had gone, Luella came into the room lookin’ like a baby in her ruffled nightgown. I can see her now. Her eyes were as blue and her face all pink and white like a blossom, and she looked at Aunt Abby in the bed sort of innocent and surprised. ‘Why,’ says she, ‘Aunt Abby ain’t got up yet?’
“‘No, she ain’t,’ says I, pretty short.
“‘I thought I didn’t smell the coffee,’ says Luella.
“‘Coffee,’ says I. ‘I guess if you have coffee this mornin’ you’ll make it yourself.’
“‘I never made the coffee in all my life,’ says she, dreadful astonished. ‘Erastus always made the coffee as long as he lived, and then Lily she made it, and then Aunt Abby made it. I don’t believe I CAN make the coffee, Miss Anderson.’
“‘You can make it or go without, jest as you please,’ says I.
“‘Ain’t Aunt Abby goin’ to get up?’ says she.
“‘I guess she won’t get up,’ says I, ‘sick as she is.’ I was gettin’ madder and madder. There was somethin’ about that little pink-and-white thing standin’ there and talkin’ about coffee, when she had killed so many better folks than she was, and had jest killed another, that made me feel ‘most as if I wished somebody would up and kill her before she had a chance to do any more harm.
“‘Is Aunt Abby sick?’ says Luella, as if she was sort of aggrieved and injured.
“‘Yes,’ says I, ‘she’s sick, and she’s goin’ to die, and then you’ll be left alone, and you’ll have to do for yourself and wait on yourself, or do without things.’ I don’t know but I was sort of hard, but it was the truth, and if I was any harder than Luella Miller had been I’ll give up. I ain’t never been sorry that I said it. Well, Luella, she up and had hysterics again at that, and I jest let her have ’em. All I did was to bundle her into the room on the other side of the entry where Aunt Abby couldn’t hear her, if she wa’n’t past it—I don’t know but she was—and set her down hard in a chair and told her not to come back into the other room, and she minded. She had her hysterics in there till she got tired. When she found out that nobody was comin’ to coddle her and do for her she stopped. At least I suppose she did. I had all I could do with poor Aunt Abby tryin’ to keep the breath of life in her. The doctor had told me that she was dreadful low, and give me some very strong medicine to give to her in drops real often, and told me real particular about the nourishment. Well, I did as he told me real faithful till she wa’n’t able to swaller any longer. Then I had her daughter sent for. I had begun to realize that she wouldn’t last any time at all. I hadn’t realized it before, though I spoke to Luella the way I did. The doctor he came, and Mrs. Sam Abbot, but when she got there it was too late; her mother was dead. Aunt Abby’s daughter just give one look at her mother layin’ there, then she turned sort of sharp and sudden and looked at me.
“‘Where is she?’ says she, and I knew she meant Luella.
“‘She’s out in the kitchen,’ says I. ‘She’s too nervous to see folks die. She’s afraid it will make her sick.’
“The Doctor he speaks up then. He was a young man. Old Doctor Park had died the year before, and this was a young fellow just out of college. ‘Mrs. Miller is not strong,’ says he, kind of severe, ‘and she is quite right in not agitating herself.’
“‘You are another, young man; she’s got her pretty claw on you,’ thinks I, but I didn’t say anythin’ to him. I just said over to Mrs. Sam Abbot that Luella was in the kitchen, and Mrs. Sam Abbot she went out there, and I went, too, and I never heard anythin’ like the way she talked to Luella Miller. I felt pretty hard to Luella myself, but this was more than I ever would have dared to say. Luella she was too scared to go into hysterics. She jest flopped. She seemed to jest shrink away to nothin’ in that kitchen chair, with Mrs. Sam Abbot standin’ over her and talkin’ and tellin’ her the truth. I guess the truth was most too much for her and no mistake, because Luella presently actually did faint away, and there wa’n’t any sham about it, the way I always suspected there was about them hysterics. She fainted dead away and we had to lay her flat on the floor, and the Doctor he came runnin’ out and he said somethin’ about a weak heart dreadful fierce to Mrs. Sam Abbot, but she wa’n’t a mite scared. She faced him jest as white as even Luella was layin’ there lookin’ like death and the Doctor feelin’ of her pulse.
“‘Weak heart,’ says she, ‘weak heart; weak fiddlesticks! There ain’t nothin’ weak about that woman. She’s got strength enough to hang onto other folks till she kills ’em. Weak? It was my poor mother that was weak: this woman killed her as sure as if she had taken a knife to her.’
“But the Doctor he didn’t pay much attention. He was bendin’ over Luella layin’ there with her yellow hair all streamin’ and her pretty pink-and-white face all pale, and her blue eyes like stars gone out, and he was holdin’ onto her hand and smoothin’ her forehead, and tellin’ me to get the brandy in Aunt Abby’s room, and I was sure as I wanted to be that Luella had got somebody else to hang onto, now Aunt Abby was gone, and I thought of poor Erastus Miller, and I sort of pitied the poor young Doctor, led away by a pretty face, and I made up my mind I’d see what I could do.
“I waited till Aunt Abby had been dead and buried about a month, and the Doctor was goin’ to see Luella steady and folks were beginnin’ to talk; then one evenin’, when I knew the Doctor had been called out of town and wouldn’t be round, I went over to Luella’s. I found her all dressed up in a blue muslin with white polka dots on it, and her hair curled jest as pretty, and there wa’n’t a young girl in the place could compare with her. There was somethin’ about Luella Miller seemed to draw the heart right out of you, but she didn’t draw it out of ME. She was settin’ rocking in the chair by her sittin’-room window, and Maria Brown had gone home. Maria Brown had been in to help her, or rather to do the work, for Luella wa’n’t helped when she didn’t do anythin’. Maria Brown was real capable and she didn’t have any ties; she wa’n’t married, and lived alone, so she’d offered. I couldn’t see why she should do the work any more than Luella; she wa’n’t any too strong; but she seemed to think she could and Luella seemed to think so, too, so she went over and did all the work—washed, and ironed, and baked, while Luella sat and rocked. Maria didn’t live long afterward. She began to fade away just the same fashion the others had. Well, she was warned, but she acted real mad when folks said anythin’: said Luella was a poor, abused woman, too delicate to help herself, and they’d ought to be ashamed, and if she died helpin’ them that couldn’t help themselves she would—and she did.
“‘I s’pose Maria has gone home,’ says I to Luella, when I had gone in and sat down opposite her.
“‘Yes, Maria went half an hour ago, after she had got supper and washed the dishes,’ says Luella, in her pretty way.
“‘I suppose she has got a lot of work to do in her own house to-night,’ says I, kind of bitter, but that was all thrown away on Luella Miller. It seemed to her right that other folks that wa’n’t any better able than she was herself should wait on her, and she couldn’t get it through her head that anybody should think it WA’N’T right.
“‘Yes,’ says Luella, real sweet and pretty, ‘yes, she said she had to do her washin’ to-night. She has let it go for a fortnight along of comin’ over here.’
“‘Why don’t she stay home and do her washin’ instead of comin’ over here and doin’ YOUR work, when you are just as well able, and enough sight more so, than she is to do it?’ says I.
“Then Luella she looked at me like a baby who has a rattle shook at it. She sort of laughed as innocent as you please. ‘Oh, I can’t do the work myself, Miss Anderson,’ says she. ‘I never did. Maria HAS to do it.’
“Then I spoke out: ‘Has to do it I’ says I. ‘Has to do it!’ She don’t have to do it, either. Maria Brown has her own home and enough to live on. She ain’t beholden to you to come over here and slave for you and kill herself.’
“Luella she jest set and stared at me for all the world like a doll-baby that was so abused that it was comin’ to life.
“‘Yes,’ says I, ‘she’s killin’ herself. She’s goin’ to die just the way Erastus did, and Lily, and your Aunt Abby. You’re killin’ her jest as you did them. I don’t know what there is about you, but you seem to bring a curse,’ says I. ‘You kill everybody that is fool enough to care anythin’ about you and do for you.’
“She stared at me and she was pretty pale.
“‘And Maria ain’t the only one you’re goin’ to kill,’ says I. ‘You’re goin’ to kill Doctor Malcom before you’re done with him.’
“Then a red colour came flamin’ all over her face. ‘I ain’t goin’ to kill him, either,’ says she, and she begun to cry.
“‘Yes, you BE!’ says I. Then I spoke as I had never spoke before. You see, I felt it on account of Erastus. I told her that she hadn’t any business to think of another man after she’d been married to one that had died for her: that she was a dreadful woman; and she was, that’s true enough, but sometimes I have wondered lately if she knew it—if she wa’n’t like a baby with scissors in its hand cuttin’ everybody without knowin’ what it was doin’.
“Luella she kept gettin’ paler and paler, and she never took her eyes off my face. There was somethin’ awful about the way she looked at me and never spoke one word. After awhile I quit talkin’ and I went home. I watched that night, but her lamp went out before nine o’clock, and when Doctor Malcom came drivin’ past and sort of slowed up he see there wa’n’t any light and he drove along. I saw her sort of shy out of meetin’ the next Sunday, too, so he shouldn’t go home with her, and I begun to think mebbe she did have some conscience after all. It was only a week after that that Maria Brown died—sort of sudden at the last, though everybody had seen it was comin’. Well, then there was a good deal of feelin’ and pretty dark whispers. Folks said the days of witchcraft had come again, and they were pretty shy of Luella. She acted sort of offish to the Doctor and he didn’t go there, and there wa’n’t anybody to do anythin’ for her. I don’t know how she DID get along. I wouldn’t go in there and offer to help her—not because I was afraid of dyin’ like the rest, but I thought she was just as well able to do her own work as I was to do it for her, and I thought it was about time that she did it and stopped killin’ other folks. But it wa’n’t very long before folks began to say that Luella herself was goin’ into a decline jest the way her husband, and Lily, and Aunt Abby and the others had, and I saw myself that she looked pretty bad. I used to see her goin’ past from the store with a bundle as if she could hardly crawl, but I remembered how Erastus used to wait and ‘tend when he couldn’t hardly put one foot before the other, and I didn’t go out to help her.
“But at last one afternoon I saw the Doctor come drivin’ up like mad with his medicine chest, and Mrs. Babbit came in after supper and said that Luella was real sick.
“‘I’d offer to go in and nurse her,’ says she, ‘but I’ve got my children to consider, and mebbe it ain’t true what they say, but it’s queer how many folks that have done for her have died.’
“I didn’t say anythin’, but I considered how she had been Erastus’s wife and how he had set his eyes by her, and I made up my mind to go in the next mornin’, unless she was better, and see what I could do; but the next mornin’ I see her at the window, and pretty soon she came steppin’ out as spry as you please, and a little while afterward Mrs. Babbit came in and told me that the Doctor had got a girl from out of town, a Sarah Jones, to come there, and she said she was pretty sure that the Doctor was goin’ to marry Luella.
“I saw him kiss her in the door that night myself, and I knew it was true. The woman came that afternoon, and the way she flew around was a caution. I don’t believe Luella had swept since Maria died. She swept and dusted, and washed and ironed; wet clothes and dusters and carpets were flyin’ over there all day, and every time Luella set her foot out when the Doctor wa’n’t there there was that Sarah Jones helpin’ of her up and down the steps, as if she hadn’t learned to walk.
“Well, everybody knew that Luella and the Doctor were goin’ to be married, but it wa’n’t long before they began to talk about his lookin’ so poorly, jest as they had about the others; and they talked about Sarah Jones, too.
“Well, the Doctor did die, and he wanted to be married first, so as to leave what little he had to Luella, but he died before the minister could get there, and Sarah Jones died a week afterward.
“Well, that wound up everything for Luella Miller. Not another soul in the whole town would lift a finger for her. There got to be a sort of panic. Then she began to droop in good earnest. She used to have to go to the store herself, for Mrs. Babbit was afraid to let Tommy go for her, and I’ve seen her goin’ past and stoppin’ every two or three steps to rest. Well, I stood it as long as I could, but one day I see her comin’ with her arms full and stoppin’ to lean against the Babbit fence, and I run out and took her bundles and carried them to her house. Then I went home and never spoke one word to her though she called after me dreadful kind of pitiful. Well, that night I was taken sick with a chill, and I was sick as I wanted to be for two weeks. Mrs. Babbit had seen me run out to help Luella and she came in and told me I was goin’ to die on account of it. I didn’t know whether I was or not, but I considered I had done right by Erastus’s wife.
“That last two weeks Luella she had a dreadful hard time, I guess. She was pretty sick, and as near as I could make out nobody dared go near her. I don’t know as she was really needin’ anythin’ very much, for there was enough to eat in her house and it was warm weather, and she made out to cook a little flour gruel every day, I know, but I guess she had a hard time, she that had been so petted and done for all her life.
“When I got so I could go out, I went over there one morning. Mrs. Babbit had just come in to say she hadn’t seen any smoke and she didn’t know but it was somebody’s duty to go in, but she couldn’t help thinkin’ of her children, and I got right up, though I hadn’t been out of the house for two weeks, and I went in there, and Luella she was layin’ on the bed, and she was dyin’.
“She lasted all that day and into the night. But I sat there after the new doctor had gone away. Nobody else dared to go there. It was about midnight that I left her for a minute to run home and get some medicine I had been takin’, for I begun to feel rather bad.
“It was a full moon that night, and just as I started out of my door to cross the street back to Luella’s, I stopped short, for I saw something.”
Lydia Anderson at this juncture always said with a certain defiance that she did not expect to be believed, and then proceeded in a hushed voice:
“I saw what I saw, and I know I saw it, and I will swear on my death bed that I saw it. I saw Luella Miller and Erastus Miller, and Lily, and Aunt Abby, and Maria, and the Doctor, and Sarah, all goin’ out of her door, and all but Luella shone white in the moonlight, and they were all helpin’ her along till she seemed to fairly fly in the midst of them. Then it all disappeared. I stood a minute with my heart poundin’, then I went over there. I thought of goin’ for Mrs. Babbit, but I thought she’d be afraid. So I went alone, though I knew what had happened. Luella was layin’ real peaceful, dead on her bed.”
This was the story that the old woman, Lydia Anderson, told, but the sequel was told by the people who survived her, and this is the tale which has become folklore in the village.
Lydia Anderson died when she was eighty-seven. She had continued wonderfully hale and hearty for one of her years until about two weeks before her death.
One bright moonlight evening she was sitting beside a window in her parlour when she made a sudden exclamation, and was out of the house and across the street before the neighbour who was taking care of her could stop her. She followed as fast as possible and found Lydia Anderson stretched on the ground before the door of Luella Miller’s deserted house, and she was quite dead.
The next night there was a red gleam of fire athwart the moonlight and the old house of Luella Miller was burned to the ground. Nothing is now left of it except a few old cellar stones and a lilac bush, and in summer a helpless trail of morning glories among the weeds, which might be considered emblematic of Luella herself.
Feb 10 2017
Rank #11: PseudoPod 696: The Fog
- Author : Morley Roberts
- Narrator : Ant Bacon
- Host : Graeme Dunlop
- Audio Producer : Marty Perrett
- Discuss on Forums
“The Fog” first appeared in The Strand Magazine in October 1908 and was collected in MIDSUMMER MADNESS in 1909.
by Morley Roberts
The fog had been thickening for many weeks, but now, moving like a black wall, it fell on the town. The lights that guided the world were put out—the nearest were almost as invisible as the stars; a powerful arc-lamp overhead was but a blur. Traffic ceased, for drivers could not see; screams were heard in the streets, and cries for help, where none could help themselves.
“I’m blind,” said Tom Crabb, as he leant against the pillar outside the Café Français in Regent Street. He said it with a chuckle, for he, alone of a street full of the lost, did not feel lost. “I’m blind, but know my way home!”
Day by day and night by night he patrolled the street with a placard upon his breast marked in big letters, “Blind’. People with eyes saw him. Out of a thousand one gave him a penny; out of ten thousand one gave him sixpence. The millionth, or some charitable madman, made it half a crown. The red-letter day of his blind life was when he found a sovereign in his palm, put there by a soft little hand that touched his. He heard a gentle girl’s voice say, “Poor blind man.” He had a hard life, and was a hard and lonely man, but he remembered that voice, as he did all voices.
As he stayed by the pillar a man stumbled against him and apologized.
“That’s Mr. Bentley,” said Tom Crabb.
“Who are you?”
“I’m blind Crabb, sir, bless your heart. You’ve given me many a copper, haven’t you?”
Bentley was a chauffeur and engineer. He drove for Lord Gervase North, the balloonist and motor-racer, and was for ever about the West End and Regent Street, as Lord Gervase often dined at the Français.
“To be sure. I know your voice,” said Bentley. “It’s an awful night, Crabb.”
“Must be,” said Crabb. “But fog or none is the same for an eyeless man. To hear the folks, it might be the end of the world, sir.”
“There never was such a fog,” replied Bentley; “it’s just awful. I can’t see you; no, nor my hand before my face.”
“You can’t get home, then. What are you doing?”
“I’ve come for my boss and the lady he’s to marry. They’re dining here with her mother. But we’ll never get home.”
“Bentley!” called a voice.
“Yes, my lord,” said the chauffeur.
“What are we to do?”
“Don’t know, my lord.”
“Can we get to an hotel?”
“They’re crammed already, I hear, my lord.”
Crabb put out his hand and touched Bentley.
“Where does he want to go? Perhaps I could lead you.”
It was a strange notion, but then the blind know their way.
“Aye, perhaps you could. The ladies live in Eccleston Square and my lord in Pont Street.”
“I don’t know either of them, but I could take them and you to your place.”
“My place?” said Bentley. Then his master spoke.
“Who’s that with you, Bentley?”
“A blind man, my lord. He thought he might take you all home, but he doesn’t know Eccleston Square. All he knows is my place.”
“Better be there than in the street,” said Crabb. He had a sense of power in him. All the rest of the world were blind. He alone had some sight.
“If the hotels are full we must go somewhere,” said Lord Gervase. “There’s no room here, nor a bed. They want to shut up now. I’ll speak to the ladies.”
“Good bloke that,” said Crabb. “He gave me a shilling once and said a kind word.”
The darkness was thicker than ever. It was incredibly thick and choking—it made the useless eyes ache. It was a threat, a terror. So might the end of the world come.
“Bentley!” said Lord Gervase once more.
“Yes, my lord.”
Bentley found him, and his employer put his hand upon his shoulder. “Can you trust this man? If so, the ladies will come to your place till it clears, if you will take us in.”
“My wife will do her best, my lord. I know this Crabb to speak to. He says you once gave him a shilling. I’m sure he’ll lead us right. But what about the car?”
“You must leave it, or get him to bring you back. I want you with us. Come, Lady Semple; come, Julia.”
The mother and daughter, who had been close behind him, moved timidly.
“Let me lead her ladyship,” said Bentley.
“Thank you, Bentley,” said Lady Semple. There was a painful note in her voice. She was never strong, and the fog alarmed her. Julia clung to her lover and did not speak.
“Crabb, take us to my place, then, if you can,” said Bentley.
“I’ll give you a fiver if we get there all right,” said Lord Gervase.
“You gave me a shilling once, my lord, and after that I’d take you for nothing,” said Crabb. “’Tisn’t often I get so much.”
He led the way and Bentley took hold of his coat.
“Keep close, all of you,” said Crabb. “The Circus is packed terrible, but if I can get across Piccadilly, “twill be easy.”
They were on the west side of Regent Street and went down Air Street into Piccadilly. Out of the darkness wandering folks came and met them. Some wailed, some asked for help, some seemed dazed or half mad, as all folks get in deep fog. And every now and again there was a crash of glass.
They came to Piccadilly and heard the trampling of horses. People in carriages spoke. The darkness was a visible, awful darkness, and in it a mad world was buried.
“Here’s the way across to Eagle Place,” said Crabb. “But can we get across?”
It was a passage of such peril as might be found in war, or upon an unknown mountain in heavy snow, or in a wreck upon a reef of sharp rocks. They heard the dreadful cry of a hurt man. Crabb’s foot came upon one who lay on the pavement. He was dead, or so Crabb averred when he stooped and felt him.
“I’ve seen many dead when I was soldiering in India,” said Crabb. Julia trembled to hear him say so.
There were many people in the street; some were drunk, and many wild, but most were fearful. Yet the darkness released some from fear and let loose their devilry. It seemed that two men in front of them smashed every window as they passed, and laughed wildly. Once Julia called out, and her lover said, “What is it?”
“Did you kiss me, Gervase?”
There was horror in her voice. He had not kissed her.
“My God!” said Gervase. “My God!”
There was a strange laugh in the darkness. He leapt at the laugh, caught it by the throat, and dashed the laugher on the pavement. And Julia’s cry brought him back to her. But they crossed at Duke Street, and wondered how they did it.
“Now it’s easy,” said Crabb. “We’re as good as there, my lord.”
In St James’s Square there were few people, and they rested. Julia spoke again.
“Did you—did you hurt him?”
But Crabb heard her speak.
“Who spoke?” he said, suddenly.
“’Twas Miss Semple spoke,” answered Bentley.
“Young lady, did you ever give a poor blind man a sovereign?” asked Crabb, in a strange, far-off voice.
“Yes, once, many years ago,” said Julia, wondering.
“And you said, “Poor blind man.” God bless you, miss. I knew your voice just now,” said Crabb. “’Twas the fifth of July, five years ago; I never forget a voice.”
He went on in silence and led them by way of Pall Mall and the Square down Whitehall and Parliament Street, going through many perils, till the Houses of Parliament were on their left and the Abbey on their right.
“We’re close now,” said Crabb. “’Tis strange it should be the same to me as any other night. Is it better now?”
“It’s worse,” said Bentley, gloomily.
But they came to the stairway of the flat that Bentley lived in.
“Is this it?” asked Bentley, in surprise. He could see nothing.
“You live here, or I’m a fool,” said Crabb. “I’ve led you straight. Go up and see.”
On the first floor his flat was, and Bentley’s young wife opened the door and cried out as she took hold of him.
“A blind man led me, dear,” said Bentley, “and we’ve brought Lord Gervase North and Lady Semple and Miss Semple. They cannot get home. We must keep them till tomorrow, when the fog goes.”
So shadow spoke to shadow, and she whom they could not see spoke to them and bade them welcome in a trembling voice, and found chairs for them. But Bentley and Lord Gervase went out again to Crabb, who took his five pounds gratefully.
“Will this fog last?” asked Lord Gervase. But none could answer him. Ere Crabb went off to his solitary house close by, Bentley said to him:
“If the fog’s like this tomorrow, come in and see us, Crabb.”
They shook hands, for the danger brought them close, and Crabb went off murmuring to himself. Bentley went back upstairs again, and it seemed to him that the fog was thicker still. In the room was lighted darkness, and the lamps showed the night feebly.
“There never was such a fog,” he said, cheerfully. But Lady Semple moaned and shed tears, and nothing they could say consoled her. To be in her own home in such a fog would be bad enough, but to be here! Poor Mrs. Bentley, only lately married, was terrified to think she had three such folks to deal with, but she had sense and some energy in her. She took her husband aside.
“The Thompsons are away,” she began. These people lived in the opposite flat on their landing. “Why shouldn’t we break in there and take their beds for these ladies?”
“Break in!” cried Bentley. “Suppose they came back?”
“They’ve gone for a week, and how can they come back in this fog? Besides, what can we do?”
“It’s a notion after all,” said her husband. “I’ll propose it to his lordship.”
As a result of the proposal he and Lord Gervase put their heads and shoulders together and turned housebreakers inside five minutes. They lighted fires and lamps and mitigated the horrid darkness as much as they could, and sent Lady Semple and Julia to bed. Mrs. Bentley soon followed, and left her husband and his employer together.
“This is a queer situation, Bentley. I wonder if it will last?” said Lord Gervase.
“It’s a rum start, my lord,” replied Bentley; “and, to look at it, it might last for ever.”
“Then what will become of London and of us?”
“We’ll have to leave in your balloon, my lord,” said Bentley, with a grim laugh. “But let’s hope it will be better in the morning.”
Lord Gervase slept in the Bentleys’ spare room, and slept soundly. When he woke it was pitch-dark. He looked at his watch by the light of a match and could not discern the figures. It seemed as if he was blind. But on opening the watch and feeling the hands he found it was eight o’clock in the morning. The fog was worse than ever. The gloom that was outside settled on their hearts. They had breakfast together and hardly spoke. Lady Semple cried continually, and Julia could hardly restrain her own tears.
“It’s like the end of the world,” sobbed Lady Semple. “We—we shall die of it.”
In truth Mrs. Bentley wondered where food was to come from if it continued. She had nothing left after breakfast but a loaf of bread. And they could not see each other. When they opened the window the outside fog was as thick as a black blanket. It inspired a helpless, hopeless horror. They sat about till nearly noon and said nothing. At ten Crabb came to the outer door and knocked. When they let his dark shadow in he put something on the table.
“It’s grub,” he said. “I thought you might want it.”
He came to them from the outer world; they asked him for news. “Things are awful, my lord,” he said, quietly. But there was a strange ring in his voice. “They’re awful; I can’t tell you all that’s going on. ’Tis madness. There are awful things being done; fires, murders, and horrible screams about. I was in Trafalgar Square and folks cried out suddenly, “Light! Light!” Something broke in the fog overhead and a great light shone. People cried out, and then—then the fog came down again. Terror is in us all, but many have broken into liquor shops and are drunk; the whole town’s mad.”
“Oh, will it last?” asked Julia. “What do the papers say?”
There were no papers; there was nothing, said Crabb. The very electric lights were out; it seemed no one worked, no one could work. There was a blind mob in the streets, and all were lost. They sought to escape, and knew not which way to run. When he had finished Lady Semple fainted, falling into her daughter’s arms. Julia and Mrs. Bentley took hold of her, and Crabb and Bentley and Lord Gervase went apart.
“What’s to be done?” asked Lord Gervase, in a kind of despair.
“Nothing but wait, my lord,” said Bentley.
“Could you lead us out of London, Crabb?” asked Lord Gervase.
“I don’t know more than my beat and a bit over,” said Crabb. “What I know I know like the inside of my hat, but beyond it there’s a sort of blackness for me. But I’ll get you food.”
“How did you get what you brought?” asked Bentley.
“Out of an open shop,” said Crabb. “There was a dead man in it.”
They said nothing for a time.
“Folks are going mad and jumping into the river,” said Crabb. “And I heard women shrieking awfully. Wicked people are about. There’s fires already here and there.”
“What can we do?” asked Lord Gervase.
“It can’t last,” said Bentley.
“Why can’t it?” asked Crabb, after a pause.
“It might last a week, eh?” said Bentley; “or—or more?”
“Where’s London’s food to come from? Where are folks to find it?” asked Crabb. “In three days they’ll be eating each other. I heard horrid things said in the dark by blind voices, my lord. They gave me the shivers and shakes.”
“Where’s that balloon, Bentley?” asked Lord Gervase, in a shaken voice. “Could we—could we use it? We must get Lady Semple out of this; we must, or she will die!”
It was in a store close by the gasworks, but Bentley couldn’t find it. Crabb said he knew the gasworks if Bentley could find the place in which the balloon was.
“But what will you do with it, my lord?”
“Go up in it and out of this, and drift away,” said Lord Gervase. “It could be done.”
“Will there be any gas left?” asked Bentley, and then he clapped his thigh as if he thought of something.
“What is it, Bentley?”
“There’ll be none working at the gasworks, my lord!”
“Crabb and I will go down and turn off the supply if we can,” said Bentley; “turn it off before it’s gone.”
“Do it,” said Lord Gervase; “this is horrible—my eyes ache. It’s driving me mad. Poor Julia!”
“Will you help me, Crabb?” asked Bentley.
So they went out together, and passed murder in the streets, and saw the glare of fires, and heard awful things. And Bentley was blind. But Crabb had eyes in his mind. So at last they came to the works, and smote on the door to see if by happy chance there were any there. The watchman came running; he had lost his nerve, and cried as he held to them, telling how the men had left him all alone. But he lived there, and they had their homes elsewhere.
“What gas have you left?” they asked him, and when he could answer he said that one gasometer was half full, but that it went quickly.
“Come and turn it off, so that it won’t waste any more,” cried Bentley. And they turned it off, knowing they brought bitter darkness to many. But Crabb said he would bring food to the watchman, and he was easier in his mind.
“London’s being destroyed,” said the watchman. “I hear dreadful things.”
“Dreadful things are being done,” said Crabb. “But dreadful things are always being done, my lad. I’m not so blind I can’t see that.”
“This is blindness,” said the watchman. “I can’t smoke even. ’Tis dreadful. Shall we all die?”
“Some day,” said Crabb. “I can see that.”
And he and Bentley tried to find the store where the balloon was, and, in trying, Crabb once got lost and said so. Bentley’s blood ran cold, for Crabb was his sight, his life, and the life of those he loved. For he loved not only his wife, but Gervase North and Julia Semple, since they were made to be loved, both of them, and Bentley was kind-hearted.
Yet Crabb found himself again, and they went back to the Square without discovering the balloon shed.
“We’ll try tomorrow,” said Crabb.
They tried next day and failed.
They tried the next day—and still failed. But Crabb brought them food, very fine food, wonderful things in pots and jars.
“I went up to Piccadilly and smashed a window for ’em,” said Crabb. “God’s truth I did. I hope they’re good. Is it too dark to see?”
They, too, had no gas.
“We can taste,” they answered. But they tasted fog—fog thick, inspissated, yellow, a pasty fog. And they tasted horror, for there were lamentable voices in the streets, voicing death and murder.
“What’s this in the bottom of the sack?” asked Bentley, when he had taken out the jars and the fine glasses of preserved foods.
“Jewels, I think,” said Crabb, in a strange voice. “I thought the ladies might like ’em. I found ’em on the pavement in an open bag, and by the feel of ’em thought they might be di’monds. And I passed another shop and smashed the window and grabbed a handful. Why not? Who wants ’em? London’s dying. But you’ve your balloon.”
Again a heavy silence fell on them. Crabb went away—he wanted news, he said. So he went lightly through the gloom, the paste of darkness and night. London was like the Pit: it was silent, but in the silence were cries. Horses lay dead; others wandered loose. There were fires in the streets, made of smashed vehicles; gloomy shadows burnt themselves and cooked horseflesh by the leaping hidden flames; some danced drunkenly and fell in the fires. Many offered golden loot for food, jewels for a mouthful, and went about hunting. They said—voices said—that the river was thick with floating corpses already, and fires increased. Out of the night came the mad shrieks of women and the wildest laughter. Dying men played with death and fell on fire and crime and the awfullest disasters. Some went madly crying for their wives and daughters, their little children and their old people who were lost. In churches they prayed; a blind organist made mad music to Heaven in a church that Crabb passed. For him a madman blew.
“’Tis an awful strange world,” said Crabb. “Darkness fell on me years ago. But this city’s blind.”
Some he spoke to were quiet and some wild. They told him rumors—the strangest. It was wonderful how rumors went in the dark. Wild crowds were marching east and west and south and north, or trying to march. But few had any guidance. ’Twas said one man had a compass and led a thousand to the river and there fell in. The parks were full of wanderers. Rich people offered thousands from windows, and were slain for money that the slayers could not find. One man lighted a fire with banknotes. A voice said that men were in the Bank, in all the banks, stealing the sacks of gold. The pavements were slippery with a thick fluid, and the dead lay everywhere. Folks drank at the river and fell in. They threw themselves from windows and fell on blind wanderers.
The railways were quiet; nothing moved there. Ships were deserted in the lower river. The telegraphs were quiet; men fled from them. The telephone exchanges were empty. The outside world had deserted London and cut it off. It was sunk in a pit; it lay at the bottom of a well. And these things Crabb gathered up and, going back to his friends, told them. But he brought them food and they ate in the darkness. He took them wine and they drank in the night. And they lost count of the days and the nights. But every day (or night) Bentley and Crabb sought for the place where the balloon was stored.
On the tenth day they found it. That day Lady Semple seemed near to death.
With infinite labor, though they had the help of the watchman, they took the balloon to the gasworks, and then Lord Gervase came with them, leaving Julia with her sick mother.
“It’s our only chance, my darling,” he said, as he left her.
He kissed her in the darkness, and kissed the dying woman—for, indeed, unless they got her out of darkness she was dead—and went away with Crabb and Bentley.
With blind eyes they worked; their eyes ached and saw nothing; their hearts labored, for the air was thick and foul, and ever fouler and thicker, since the fires of the town grew by the folly and madness of lost men. And once again for an hour it grew lighter overhead. They saw each other. Then the darkness fell again. With the help of the watchman, now their slave and the slave of Crabb—who did the work of many and was the calmest of all—they started the inflating of the great balloon. In the blackness of things they had to use infinite care lest they should wound the gigantic ship which was to save them. Yet at last the monster commenced to grow wonderfully, like a huge toadstool in the night. As it grew it straightened out the gear, and they felt its proportions and recognized this and that and felt easier.
“We shall get out,” said Lord Gervase. He yearned to live. He was young and loved a woman, and the world was big for him and fine. But he found Bentley a bigger man than himself; and Crabb was bigger than either, though he had been no more than a soldier, wounded in a foolish fight in far-off India. He gave them courage to drink—he held up their hearts. For he loved the voice of Julia Semple, and remembered her gift, and was glad to help her and her lover.
“You shall want nothing after this, Crabb,” said Gervase.
“I shall want much, or little always,” returned Crabb, in a strange exaltation. For he had never loved a woman till now, though he had kissed many. And her whom he loved he could never kiss.
The world outside was not their world. They were lost in London in the darkness, and were cut off. But the balloon grew and grew. And then it ceased to grow. There was no more gas.
That night it was a little lighter (for it was night, though they knew it not), and the four men labored in the works, and set the retorts going and made more gas. Crabb was a man of strength, and now he grew more strong. He held them up and labored, and made the watchman, who was a poor creature, do all that he should do. He made him feel brave. This is the gift of the strong; the gift by which men know them. And at last the balloon stood up and tugged upon its ropes, made fast to an old boiler in the open space.
“It will carry—how many?” asked Crabb. This was a thing none had asked. It was a great balloon, built for a special race and for purposes of science, but it could not carry them all, and they knew it.
Lord Gervase whispered to him.
“Five at the most, Crabb.”
Including the watchman they were seven.
“I’ll stay, my lord,” said Crabb. “I can get on by myself, as you see.”
“You’re a brave man,” said Lord Gervase.
He was more than a brave man, this poor blind fellow. But for him what would they have done? By now they would have been dead. Through him they had one chance.
But if Crabb stayed, who was the other to be? They fought it out that night in the flat among the three—Lord Gervase, Crabb, and Bentley. The women stayed apart in another room, where some feared Lady Semple was dying.
“I’ll stay with those who can’t go,” said Crabb. They understood him. He could live. For him it was not dark. He had, as he said, eyes, and his strong and quiet mind could endure the horrors of which he told them. They knew he never told half, but their minds told them the rest.
“Let it be so, Crabb. You’ve saved us,” said Lord Gervase. “When this is over, ask what you like and you shall have it.”
“I’ll stay with Crabb, sir,” said Bentley. He too was brave, but his heart sank as he spoke.
“Your wife must go, then!”
“She must,” said Bentley.
“What about the watchman?” asked Crabb.
“If I stay he can go,” said Bentley. “He has helped; but for him we couldn’t have filled the balloon. Let him go.”
Bentley called to his wife. She came from the other flat and went to his voice, and leant upon him while he told her what they meant to do. She was a young girl still, no more than nineteen, and her soul was her husband’s in this hour.
“I’ll stay with you, Will.”
They could not move her. For when they spoke urgently she laughed at them in scorn. Every reason they urged for her safety was one for her man’s.
“I’d rather die with him. Don’t say any more. Let the watchman go,” said she. Bentley kissed her in the darkness, which was lighted for him by her faith and love, and she wept upon his heart.
“Take poor Lady Semple out of this place quickly,” she said, “or she will die.”
They knew it was the truth. Lord Gervase spoke.
“Then it’s Lady Semple and Miss Semple, myself and the watchman. Yet the balloon might carry five. It’s a pity.”
“So much the better chance for you, my lord,” said Bentley.
The higher they could rise the greater chance there was of getting an air-current to carry them away from London. But they knew there might be none.
“Lose no time,” said Crabb. He was the strongest there.
They needed a strong man, for if the fog could be worse it was now worse indeed. The heavy smoke of many fires ran along the ground; nothing but the calm that destroyed them kept them from being destroyed.
“Let’s go now,” said Crabb. He carried Lady Semple to the works in his arms, and as they went she spoke to him.
“Save my daughter, Crabb. I shall never get out alive.”
“We’ll save you both, and all of you, my lady,” said Crabb, cheerfully.
“Oh, it’s dreadful,” she moaned. “Am I blind, Crabb? I see nothing—nothing! I choke!”
“You’ll be in sunlight, God’s sunlight, in half an hour, my lady,” said Crabb. “Up above this there’s light—there must be; think of it—fine sunlight shining such as I’ve not seen these ten years, since I saw it out in India. ’Tis a sun there, my lady. I remember shining temples, gold and marble. Oh, yes, there’s sunlight up above.”
They came to the works and entered. The watchman greeted them nervously.
“You must take me, gentlemen; you must take me,” he cried, fearfully.
“Shut up,” said Crabb. “You’re going to be taken. Don’t act the cur.”
But the watchman was half mad. There were thousands mad that hour in London, and tens of thousands would be. Yes, there was sunlight up above, said Crabb. Oh, the brave man he was! Could there be sunlight, or had the sun been put out?
They laid the sick woman in the car, and she rested her head upon Julia’s knees. The watchman held to the basket-work and leapt in hurriedly. But Gervase North spoke with Crabb and Bentley.
“Stay here if you can, Crabb. You, Bentley, go back to your wife. She’ll be lonely. You’re both brave men—the bravest. I feel a cur to leave you. But you stay, Crabb. If there’s no wind up aloft we shall come down here—here! You understand?”
They understood and shook hands.
“I’d like to shake hands with Miss Julia, my lord,” said Crabb, in a queer, strained voice.
“Yes, yes,” said Lord Gervase.
So Crabb spoke to the girl.
“Will you shake hands, miss?”
Julia cried softly.
“Oh, yes; you’re a brave man.”
“You said years ago, ‘Poor blind man,’” said Crabb. He kissed her hand gently.
Gervase was in the car.
“You can let go, Crabb,” he said. “Goodbye, Bentley; goodbye, Crabb.”
“Good luck and God’s sunlight to you all,” said the blind man.
He and Bentley let the rope run slowly, easing it off round a heavy pipe of iron that lay by the big boiler.
“I’m at the end of the rope,” said Crabb. “Stand clear, Bentley. Goodbye, sir. Goodbye, miss.”
The balloon was invisible, the car unseen; the world was blank and awful.
“Let go,” said Gervase.
He heard a far dim voice below him cry “Goodbye,” and knew the earth had dropped away. He grasped Julia’s hand. Lady Semple fainted and was quiet. The watchman laughed. But Gervase looked up—up!
Above him he saw something—a dimness, a blur, a space. It was almost black, but visible; it was brown, it was yellow, and then grey. There was a dash of wonderful blue in it, and then they shot out into a magic and intolerable day of noon! The sun shone upon them, and far below lay a wonderful cloud with sunlight on it.
And the watchman giggled strangely. Julia shrank from him and held out her hand to her lover. They saw each other once more—their sight was their own again. But Gervase was grimed with the labor he had done; she hardly knew him. Even his voice was strange.
“Thank God! It’s wonderful!” she said. He bent and kissed her.
“My dearest!” he answered. And Lady Semple moaned and woke.
“Where am I?” she asked.
“In the daylight,” said Gervase.
“The poor men who were left!” cried Julia. She had never seen this Crabb with her eyes; she only knew him as a big shadow, a voice that was strong and yet trembled when he spoke to her. She knew he was a hero, and knew, as women must know, that he loved her. He was in the darkness beneath them.
But how wonderful the world was! The sun was glorious, the heaven above a perfect blue. The far cloud below was white, and yet in places a strange dun color. It heaved and moved and rose and sank. Out of it came strange pillars of yellow clouds.
“What are they?” asked Julia, pointing into the void.
“Fires,” said her lover. He wondered if the balloon moved, and could not see that it did. There was no speck of cloud above them to say if the air moved.
Far away from the city, to the east and west, they saw a shining gleam of the river. The great cloud rested only on the town. They saw far off blue hills, and the far, far country adorned with happy little towns. Wrath lay only on the city; far away was peace. The lower river was full of ships. The outer world wondered at the end of things.
They rose no further. And they did not move. Gervase grasped Julia’s hand.
“You’re brave, my dear?”
It was a question, and she knew it.
“What is it, Gervase?”
“We don’t move, Julia. Neither up nor away from here.”
“What does that mean?”
She saw how grave he looked.
“What does it mean?”
“You’re brave and will be,” he said.
So she understood. He knew the balloon was slowly sinking. Perhaps there was a little leak in it.
They came slowly, very slowly, from the heights. But still the watchman chuckled, for he watched no longer. The golden cloud heaved close beneath them.
“We’re going down, down,” said the lovers. It was as though a ship sank in a turbid sea. A little grey cloud gathered about them. The sun lost its golden clear sharpness. And the watchman saw it and watched, and ceased to laugh.
“Do we go down again, sir?” he asked.
“Aye,” said Gervase. Lady Semple heard him, but saw nothing. The light of day grew dim. It was as though night fell about them. The sun went out and darkness gathered where they sank. They breathed uneasily and sank into utter blackness.
Down below Crabb waited, quietly wondering. He had taken Bentley home and had come back to the works by himself. He sat quiet as a stone—hoping, happy and unhappy. She was, at any rate, in sunshine. He thanked what gods there were for that. The time went. Perhaps a wind blew high up in the sunlight!
As he waited he heard a little sharp cry like that of a bat, and then a sudden rushing sound, and the flat sound of something striking earth not many yards from him. It was very horrible, for what fell was soft—humanly soft—and he knew it. He groped his way to where the thing fell, and his hands were wet when he touched it, and his heart failed him. But he felt again, and knew it was a man, or had been one, and not a woman. He felt a beard. It was the watchman. He sat by the body—by the wreck of the body—and wondered. Had Lord Gervase thrown him out? That was possible. Anything was possible. Or perhaps the man had gone mad. He knew he was unbalanced. There were few wholly sane in the great city. But if the balloon had been coming down, it must have ascended again.
“I’ll wait,” said Crabb. How long he waited he did not know. No clocks chimed. He had no sense of the hours; there was no light for him or for any. But at last—at last—he heard a far dim voice. It was not in the street, for now none came there, or if they came they cried lamentably. It was far above him. The next moment he heard the faint light impact of the car; heard it rebound lightly and come down again, not twenty yards from where it had ascended.
“Is that you, my lord?” he asked.
A voice within two yards of him answered, “Yes, Crabb.”
“I’m sorry, sorry, my lord.”
“It can’t be helped,” said Gervase. “Did you hear anything fall, Crabb?”
“Aye, my lord.”
“The watchman went mad and jumped out. We rose again, but sank once more. There’s no wind up there, Crabb. And Lady Semple’s dead, Crabb.”
Crabb heard Julia Semple weeping quietly, but he found a sheet of iron and dragged it over the hollow in which the watchman’s body lay before he went to the car.
“Make the ropes fast, Crabb,” said Lord Gervase.
Then they lifted Julia and her dead mother from the car. They laid the body apart.
“God help us,” said Gervase. “Where’s Bentley?”
“With his wife,” said Crabb.
“We must keep the balloon full and try again,” said Gervase. Crabb brought Bentley, and his wife came with him. The men fired the retorts and made more gas with infinite labor. Once more the balloon, which had become limp and flaccid, stood up boldly. There were five of them left. The car could carry five, but even with four they had done nothing. Before they did anything else they buried Lady Semple, and heaped earth upon the battered watchman. They thought then that it was day.
“We must go,” said Gervase.
Crabb stood apart once more, but Julia Semple spoke.
“Let Crabb come.”
“Oh, no, miss.”
“You must come, or I will not go.”
She took the blind man by the arm.
“Yes; come, Crabb. We owe everything to you,” said Gervase.
“I’ll come, then,” said Crabb. His voice was strained. They remembered it afterwards. Some folks have gifts in their voices: they mark the power of their nature, the strength of them.
Before they went up they lightened the car of every superfluous thing and cut away the guide-rope. They took little food with them, and even cast away their boots.
“It’s our last chance, Bentley,” said Lord Gervase. “We can’t make more gas, Crabb says.”
They got into the car again.
“I’ll cut the rope, my lord,” said Crabb.
“Aye,” said Gervase.
“Are we ready?”
Crabb cut the rope, and they rose. But overhead the darkness was intense.
“We came through black and dun and yellow and grey before,” said Gervase. “And then the light—the light!”
Now they breathed again and saw a faint grayness, and then stars sparkling suddenly in deep dark blue, and far away to the west a thin, thin moon. It was night, the dark hour before the dawn. Towns shone with lights far below them, sparkling on the horizon.
“It’s night still,” they said.
Even as they spoke they saw in the east a little grey flame of dawn, a faint whiteness, a growth as of a lily opened.
“There’s the day!”
“I wish I could see it,” said Crabb.
“Poor blind man,” said Julia, and she pressed his big hand.
“That’s better than gold, missy. Oh, if I could see your face!” said Crabb.
“I’ve never seen yours,” she said, softly.
But the dawn rose like a magic palm in a desert. There was gold in the flame of it, and a heart of gold, and the upper limb of the sun grew out of the east, and she saw Crabb at last. Grimed though he was by labor she saw a strangely carved face, which was very calm and strong. The lids upon his sightless eyes were full and hid them. His mouth was like that of some strange Egyptian. It had power in it, and resolution.
“I see you now, Crabb,” she said to him.
The others looked at the dawn. Mrs. Bentley wept softly.
“If I could only see you! May I touch your face, missy?”
She raised his hand to it and he felt its sweet, soft contours.
“You must be very beautiful,” he murmured. Then he said to Lord Gervase:
“Do we still rise, my lord?”
“I think so, Crabb,” Gervase answered.
“Look up, my lord. Is there a cloud above us?”
High in the zenith there was a faint wisp of vapor in a cool current.
“That cloud above moves, my lord,” said Bentley.
“We don’t move,” said Gervase, dully. “’Tis a thousand feet above us.”
“Can we cast out anything?” said Crabb, in an eager voice.
They cast out some clothes—aye, and some food and water.
“It’s not enough,” said Gervase. “But there’s a strong current high above us.”
“Oh, there’s enough,” said Crabb.
But they only stared at him.
“You’re blind, Crabb.”
“I can see things,” said Crabb. “I see if we go down we shall not rise again. I see that—and more.”
He bent his head to Julia.
“You see me, missy? Will you remember me?”
“Oh, yes, Crabb.”
He stood up and held the edge of the car.
“Sit down, man!” cried Bentley.
But he stared at the warmth of the sun, which he felt upon his pallid cheek.
“Oh, the sun’s good, though I cannot see it! And I’ve a sense of light in me! Goodbye, missy.”
He said that to Julia, and ere they knew what he did he threw himself from the car.
They saw his body fall, and Julia shrieked vainly. He fell into the cloud, but the balloon rose and entered the great wind of the upper air. And the heavy cloud below them slipped to the east.
Apr 03 2020
Rank #12: PseudoPod 500: A Bit Of The Dark World
- Author : Fritz Leiber
- Narrator : Norm Sherman
- Host : Alasdair Stuart
- Audio Producer : Graeme Dunlop
- Discuss on Forums
“A Bit Of The Dark World” originally appeared in Fantastic Stories of Imagination, February 1962. It is presented here as the 7th part of our 10 episode “A CENTURY OF HORROR” celebration – with 9 other episodes made available only to subscribers!
A Bit Of The Dark World
by Fritz Leiber
… and then one of the last rays of the sun must have struck a mirror-surface in the summit-crag, perhaps an outcropping of quartz, for it struck back at me like a golden rapier, making me blink, and then for an instant the beam was glitteringly black and I thought I saw (though nothing as clearly as I’d seen the black all-knowing spider-centipede on the pinnacle) a black shape — black with the queer churning blackness you see only at night with your eyes dosed. The shape coiled rapidly down the crag, into the cavern gullies and around the rocks and finally and utterly into the undergrowth above the fold and disappeared.
Jul 24 2016
Rank #13: PseudoPod 531: Gleed
- Author : Jason Rush
- Narrator : Hollis Monroe
- Host : Alasdair Stuart
- Audio Producer : Graeme Dunlop
- Discuss on Forums
PseudoPod 531: Gleed is a PseudoPod original.
by Jason Rush
The first thing I notice is that goddamn old-timey music, Suwanee River or some shit.
I smell stale peanuts and beer. Also coal and dirt, but that’s always there. As much my fault as anyone’s.
I’m already seated. My head sags, and my hands rest on a small, oak table. Car keys and cell phone in front of me.
My head pounds.
“Guys?” Danny says across from me. My brow creases as I look up. He, Johnson and Huck sit around the table. My crew. Why are their hardhats still on? Dirty work clothes. Smudges of grime on their faces. And how the fuck did we get here?
Johnson’s jaw hangs slack, and a bead of spit gathers in the corner of his mouth. He stares down at the table like he doesn’t know we’re here. Like he doesn’t know he’s here.
A trace of blood crusts Huck’s cheek below his ear.
“Guys,” Danny says again. “Where are we?” He’s the youngest–still a kid, really–and he looks like he’s gonna cry.
“The bar,” I say, and because giving Danny shit is what we do, I mumble, “Dumbass.”
“But…” Danny shakes his head. He looks to Huck, cuz Huck’s the one that doesn’t treat him like a kid, but Huck ain’t moving. Head down. Eyes blank. No one home. “I don’t remember coming here.”
There’s movement over my shoulder as the waitress walks up. Peggy. I know her. She’s always on the night shift. She ought to feel familiar, but she doesn’t. Nothing does.
She taps a pencil against her order pad, head cocked so graying hair spills over one shoulder. “Well?” she says, impatient, like she’s asked for our order already. Tap tap tap with the pencil.
I run a hand over my face, and my beard bristles. I look back at my crew. Johnson lifts his head like he’s just waking up, eyes filled with confusion. Shaggy gray hair pokes out under his hard hat. His crow’s feet flex as he squints. He wipes the bead of spit with the back of his hand.
I want him to take lead, tell me what’s going on, but he looks dazed, like a cartoon character that got whacked in the head.
Turning back to Peggy, I say, “The usual.” Anything to get rid of her.
She raises an eyebrow, then shrugs. “Okay, sugar.” She turns, but not before I see her eyes roll. Then she’s gone, back to the kitchen.
Old Mike stands at the bar, wiping the counter. The wall behind him is covered in antique crap. Six shooters and pickaxes and horseshoes. There’s a faded photo of Doc Holliday next to what Old Mike says is a bullet hole, shot by Doc himself when Mike’s great grandfather ran the joint. Or great great grandfather. Whatever.
A flatscreen TV flashes scenes of Butch and Sundance getting ready to jump, and the player piano in the corner hammers away on its own. Tourist bullshit. I hate this place. Hate this town.
Johnson looks around, then turns to me, face tight. “We were at work.” His voice is like a bucket of gravel. “When did we get here?”
A stab of cold pricks my gut. I’ve never seen Johnson lost before.
I shake my head. Last thing I remember is being underground with the drone of the continuous miner, blades churning, rock crumbling. The thunk of a six-foot bolt driven into the ceiling. The smell of dust and rock and coal.
(A dull, red light. Someone screaming.)
Then here. Looking at my hands. Peggy tapping her pencil.
Beside me, Huck groans and looks up. His eyes are jerky, like he’s concussed. They flit from Johnson to me to Danny. Back to Johnson. He opens his mouth, starts to say something, but cuts short with a gasp.
His head snaps back, and we all flinch at the movement. His eyes go wide. He clamps his hands to the side of his head. “Oh Jesus,” he says. I notice the crusted blood under his ear again. “Jesus, no.” His voice is higher. Shrill. Eyes squeezed shut, gripping his head like he’s holding it together. “Something’s coming.”
Then he screams.
And that’s when it moves, like a worm in my ear. It slithers, squirms, wraps the ear canal. Slime and ooze. I hear it squish, echoing in the dark of my mind. And, oh God, it speaks, whispers, Something’s coming. This is the end.
I jerk to my feet, and my chair topples. I clutch my head in my hands. “Get it out!” I scream. “Christ, get it out!” My heel catches, and I plummet, crashing to the floor. Something’s coming. I claw at my head, thrashing, flailing. Something’s coming. This is the end.
The worm is still. Can’t feel it. Can’t hear it.
I’m panting, hyperventilating, can’t fill my lungs.
The table behind me rocks on its side. I must’ve knocked it over when I fell. Huck’s still seated, eyes wide, gripping our table like he could dig his nails into it. He’s shaking. Johnson and Danny are on their feet, staring, first at me, then Huck, then back. Peggy and Old Mike gawk by the bar. Peggy has our pitcher of beer and four glasses, but she doesn’t bring them, just stands there, mouth open.
Huck is mumbling, “Jesus” and “Oh Jesus” and “Jesus fuck.” He buries his head in his arms and sobs.
“What the hell,” Danny says, a quiver in his voice.
Johnson is the first to move. He rounds the table and squats beside me. “You hurt?” I shake my head, and he says, “Can you get up?” Hooking a hand under my armpit, he lifts. My legs are jelly. I wobble, but he keeps me steady. At first I think he’ll set me back at the table, but he looks across the empty room at Peggy and Old Mike and says to me, “Let’s go.” He scoops up my keys and phone and says to Danny, “Get Huck and let’s go.”
I hear Peggy mutter something about “crazy”, and Old Mike grunts his agreement.
Then we’re outside. The light from the bar and a single streetlight across the lot push back at the dark. It smells like snow. I’m panting, and my breath clouds the air in front of me. The gravel parking lot crunches under my feet.
“What the fuck happened in there?” Johnson says.
I shake my head. No words could show him, make him see.
Behind me, Huck says, “It’s coming,” over and over, blubbering nonsense, “Christ” and “Jesus” and I want him to shut up, just shut the fuck up.
Danny tells him, “It’s okay, I got ya,” but his voice doesn’t match the words. It’s shaky, scared, like a kid that just got whupped.
Seeing my truck, I pull my arm from Johnson’s grip, but Johnson grabs me and yanks me back. “The fuck you think you’re going?”
“You think you’re driving?” He shakes his head and drags me to his pickup. The doors unlock with a beep-beep, and I jump at the sound. Johnson tugs the passenger side open and shoves me in, then jerks the seatbelt over my shoulder. Danny and Huck pile into the bucket seats in the back.
“It’s gonna be okay,” Danny says, and I hear the pat-pat-pat of his hand on Huck’s shoulder.
“It’s not,” Huck says, mumbles, sobs. “It’s not gonna be okay, it’s fucked, it’s all fucked.”
I can’t get a good picture of what’s going on around me. My vision is mackled. Everything’s jerky, like shitty cellphone video. “Where are we going?” My voice feels thick.
“Hospital,” Johnson says, sliding into the driver’s seat and jamming the keys in the ignition.
“I’m fine.” I close my eyes to stop from puking.
“You ain’t fine.” Johnson peers over his shoulder into the back seat. “Huck neither. We’re going to the hospital.”
I feel something warm and wet against my earlobe. I wipe at it, and my fingers come away with blood.
“What the hell happened, man?” Danny says behind us. I crane my neck to see him. His face is white–a ghost under the glare of the streetlight. He shakes his head. “I mean, what the hell?”
The engine cranks and shudders to a start. The dashboard clock blinks, then settles on 12:03 AM. End of our shift was four hours ago. Where the fuck have we been?
As the truck backs up, I put my face in my hands, trying to stop the world from spinning. We pause at the edge of the parking lot as one lonely car passes. Johnson pulls out. He glances at me but doesn’t say anything. He’s not a talker.
Huck has settled down a bit. Silence in the back seat. Just the hum of the engine. Hum of the road.
Then Danny screams.
Johnson flinches at the sound, jerking the wheel. Tires screech. My head thumps against the window. I thought I had my hardhat on, but it must’ve come off back at the bar.
With another jerk, the truck steadies.
Behind me, Danny screams and squeals. His shrill voice drills in my head, and I want to die.
I want to tell him to be a man, but the swerving has my stomach all fucked, and I think if I open my mouth I’ll vomit.
Then he quiets. I hear him sob, talking, yammering under his breath, voice choked with sorrow. “Something’s coming,” he says. “I can feel it rising.”
“You’re okay,” Huck says. “I’m here. I gotcha.”
The cold window presses against my forehead. My eyes are closed. I pry them open and see the reflectors on the road zip past us. The motion is unsettling, and I close my eyes again.
“Johnson,” I say.
He grunts. His response to most shit, but you get to know the tones, and this grunt says, Yeah, what?
“You shouldn’t be driving.”
He grunts again, and this one I take to mean, Shut the fuck up.
“You’ll be next,” I say, “and you shouldn’t be driving.”
“Well the hospital ain’t comin’ to us.”
The headlights make two overlapping circles on the road ahead of us, and the center line flashes through them, blip, blip, blip. I close my eyes. “Call a fucking ambulance,” I mutter.
He grunts. Shut the fuck up again.
Ambulance takes too long, he’s thinking. Maybe an hour, out here in the boondocks. He thinks he can get us there faster, but he can’t. He won’t. We won’t make it.
“I felt it,” Danny says behind me, voice shaking. “Moving in my ear. A fucking worm. Something. What’s happening to us?”
“I know,” Huck says.
“I don’t want to die.”
“We’re gonna be okay.”
I want to tell Huck to stop coddling that goddam kid. Time for him to man up. But then I see the glow of lights over the next ridge.
“No,” I say, lifting my head to look at Johnson. “Not this way.”
Johnson doesn’t answer, but if he did, he’d say this is the way to the hospital, and tell me to shut up.
“Not this way, man. Stop. Don’t go this way.”
The road snakes, and we round the last curve before the mine. The lights are blinding after the dark of the highway. I squint and hold a hand up to shield my eyes. The giant sign by the road reads, “Gleed Industries”.
(A dull, red light. Someone screaming.)
“No!” I reach for the wheel, don’t know what for, what I’m expecting to do. Jack it to the side? Swerve us off the road? Anything but pass the fucking mine. But before my hand gets there, Johnson lets go. His eyes bug out. He slams his hands to the sides of his head and screams.
We careen off the asphalt to the dirt shoulder. The truck lurches, throwing me against the seatbelt strap. Huck is shouting behind me. Danny cries out. The world outside the windshield is a blur. The “Gleed Industries” sign races toward us. Johnson grips his head and screeches. I grab the wheel and crank, and gravel spins under the wheels as the truck fishtails, slides sideways, the sign growing bigger and bigger in Johnson’s window. I grit my teeth, squeeze my eyes shut and brace.
The side of the truck crumples. My head whips to the left. The seatbelt cuts a line across my shoulder. Johnson’s skull hits the side window with a crack. Shattered glass sprays my face. The truck rocks. Glass tinkles. Danny and Huck pant and gasp in the back.
I taste blood.
My shoulder hurts where the seatbelt dug in.
I open my eyes a crack. I’m twisted to the side, hung up by the seatbelt. My neck hurts. My head lolls. I sit up, and pain flares in my side as a rib shifts. Groaning, I slump back into the harness.
No one says anything. Are they in shock? Unconscious? I’ll have to sit up to see, but I’m scared of that rib shifting again.
I close my eyes and take a breath. When I’m relaxed, I put a hand on the seat and push, straightening my body. My rib aches, but I take it slow and manage to get all the way up.
Behind me, Danny says, “It’s time,” with the voice of a man being walked to the noose.
Johnson leans against the crumpled door. His face is splattered with blood. Eyes closed. I nudge him. “Johnson?”
Danny says “oh God” over and over behind me.
“Hey, Johnson,” I say, and nudge him again.
Johnson’s eyes snap open. “It’s time.” And there’s nothing in his expression, like Johnson’s gone, and there’s a puppeteer with a hand up his ass. He grabs the handle of his door and pushes, but it’s jammed against the “Gleed” sign. The door thunks, and glass tinkles. He pushes again. And again.
“Okay,” I say. “This way, let’s get out my side, man.”
He keeps pushing.
“Johnson.” I put a hand on his shoulder.
His head whips to face me, and Jesus Christ, there really is nothing behind those eyes.
“It’s time,” he says.
In the back, Danny says, “It’s here.”
And Huck says, “This is the end.”
The worm moves again, slithers, squirms, the squish squish echoing in my ear, in the darkness inside me, and I scream, but my mouth doesn’t move, and there’s no sound, and I grab my head, but my hands lay still at my sides. My muscles flex, but they don’t. I convulse, thrash, bash my head against the window, but nothing happens. My body doesn’t respond. All the movement is in my mind. Impulses that are never sent. My body is relaxed. Quiet. Seated. Still.
“It’s time,” I say, and it’s my voice, my mouth moving, but it isn’t me speaking, it’s the worm, and oh God, it whispers in my head, Something’s coming, and my mouth moves again, and says, “It’s here.”
My mind goes black with panic. Can’t move, can’t scream. The worm slithers and whispers, and through my terror, I feel my hand shift. It slips the seatbelt off and reaches for the door, pushes it open. My legs slide out. The cracked rib pops in my side. I want to double over from the pain. Want to scream. Collapse. But I step out of the truck and walk.
Behind me, the others crawl out, and I hear their footsteps following me across the lot.
“Something’s coming,” I say.
“Rising,” Johnson says.
“Coming,” Danny says.
“It’s here,” Huck says.
No no no, I scream in my head, trying to stop from speaking again, to stop walking, to fall to the ground in a ball, stop the pain in my side, stop the slither in my ear, in my head, but all I do is say, “This is the end,” and march through the lot with my crew.
There’s no one else in the parking area, but there are cars, and I hear the noises of the night shift operations. The buzz of the conveyor belt, the white noise of the coal-washing plant. Our bodies wind through the vehicles, feet shuffling over gravel, until we stop in front of the elevator. It stands alone at the edge of the lot, away from the buildings, away from the man-trip vehicles at the main entrance. The fastest way in. Right above the deepest part of the mine. Right above where we were digging yesterday.
(A dull, red light. Someone screaming.)
I don’t want to go back, can’t go back, won’t go back, and the worm whispers, psss psss psss.
Johnson hits the button, saying, “This is it.”
And I say, “It’s coming.”
The elevator dings and slides open.
No no no no.
My feet step for the door. I will my hand to move, and finally, my body reacts. Grabbing the side of the cage, I push back, stumble, trip, fall to my ass, and a cloud of dust sprays up around me.
The worm shifts, squish squish in my ear, tightening, and my body belongs to it again. I’m sitting on the ground, trying to flail and scramble away and run, but instead I stand, my bad rib grinding in my side, but I can’t cry out, can’t scream, can’t fight it as I follow the others into the elevator and the doors slide shut behind me.
Gears whine as we descend. My breath rasps. My heart pounds.
No one speaks. We stand and sway as the elevator drops through its shaft, down into the darkness that’s rising around us. My eyes flit left and right, searching for a way out, a way to move, hit the emergency stop button, smash the panel, pry the doors open, jump, run, but we just stand and sway and descend into the pit.
“This is the end,” Huck says, and the elevator slows to a stop.
The door slides open.
The room is a grid, giant paths we’ve dug out, with pillars left untouched to support the ceiling. We exit the elevator (no no no), rounding the first pillar, and the cavern opens up a hundred yards in front of us. At the end, the continuous miner sits dormant, engine silent, rotors still. Beyond it, a crack gapes along the wall, a couple feet wide, and a dull, red light glows through.
I remember now. Remember the wall crumbling, Johnson killing the engine. I remember peering through the fissure, the walls flush with red light, thinking, Why didn’t we know this was here?
Huck screaming behind me.
Then nothing. Peggy tapping her pencil.
I don’t want to go back. Can’t go back. The red gets brighter as we march through the mine. I feel its heat on my face. Sweat trickles down my forehead, gets in my eye, but I can’t wipe it away, can’t move anything but my feet, marching, marching forward.
I hear distant operations–machinery, engines–but it’s quiet in this sector. The night crew isn’t here. No sign of them.
As we approach, I hear footsteps echoing down one of the corridors to the right, and someone rounds the corner next to the miner.
“Sigmund?” he shouts, and his voice echoes in the dark acoustics. I recognize him but don’t know his name. Some night-crew guy I’ve seen in passing. The name he’s calling, though, Sigmund, that’s the foreman of the crew that should be here, working this area.
“Sigmund?” he says again. “Ops has been calling. Where the fuck are you guys?”
Hope sparks in my chest. He can save us. Stop this. Call the police. The ambulance. The army. I try to scream for help, but the worm slithers and tightens, and I’m lost. I groan inside, but on the outside I’m calm, marching forward.
The night-crew guy rounds the edge of the continuous miner and draws up short. I hear him gasp as he sees the fissure. The dull, red light. He leans forward and mutters, “What the fuck?”
I want to tell him to run. To save himself.
We’re almost to him. He hears our footsteps behind him and spins. He squints, eyes jumping from Johnson, to Huck, to me, to Danny. He shakes his head. “Johnson?” He checks his watch. “The fuck are you guys doing here?”
“Something’s coming,” Johnson says.
A shadow passes over the guy’s neck. A thin, dark line, slithering upward, and I want to reach out, grab it, stop it, but I’m too far, and I can’t move anyway, I just march forward, my body focused on the fissure.
“What the–” the guy says, and swats at his neck, but too late, and the shadow slides across his earlobe and disappears inside him. “No.” He grabs his ear. “No!” And then it’s all screams. Pleas to God, to Jesus, to us, for anyone to get it out and make it stop.
His knees drop out from under him, and he slams to the rock floor. He convulses, hands gripping his head, back arched, eyes squeezed shut, kicking and howling, all nonsense now, no words, just unintelligible screeches.
We walk past him. Our bodies are calm, but inside, I want to run, charge the wall, bash my head into the rock. Anything to stop this placid march.
We pass the continuous miner. I think I see blood pooling at the foot of the driver’s side door, but I can’t turn my head to look.
Behind us, the screams silence. I hear the man shuffle to his feet, suddenly calm and quiet. “Something’s coming,” he whispers, and his footsteps tap down the passageway toward the elevator.
He’ll move on autopilot, go wherever he would go–the bar, home, somewhere–until the worm in his ear decides it has control. Decides it’s time and brings him back.
We’re stopped in front of the fissure now. Not close enough to see in, but I feel the heat. It pushes at me like a wall. Smothers me. My eyes water. Sweat drips down my brow.
Huck steps forward. He stands for a second with his back to us, silhouetted against the red opening in the rock. Squatting, he shoves at the rubble. I hear the loose rocks shift and thunk, echoing through the cavern. My heart pounds. I know what he’s looking for, what he wants, what the worm in his head wants. I don’t know how, but I know, I see it in my mind before Huck stands and turns to face us, an eight-inch knife in his hand.
I shake my head, but it doesn’t move. I tell him to drop it, to run, but no sound comes out.
The blade is old. Ancient. Iron, with dents and imperfections from where it was hammered on a forge. It’s been waiting for us. For so long, it can’t be measured in time. Forever. Strange characters are etched across the blade, no language I’ve ever seen, but somehow I know what it says, and I say it too, “This is the end.”
Huck backs to the edge of the crack in the wall, still facing us. I see the fear in his eyes now, the only thing that tells me he’s still there, deep inside that body. Red glows around him on all sides. Through the fissure, there is emptiness. The ground drops away behind him. I can’t see the far wall. Huck steps back. His heel hangs over the brink. He raises the knife. A tear spills down his cheek as he presses the blade against his throat.
No no no, I think, but I can’t move, can’t stop it, and Huck slices.
His throat opens beneath the blade, red pouring down his neck and chest. He gags. The knife drops from his grip and clatters to the stone floor. Huck’s eyes roll back in his head. He teeters, then falls through the gap, into the red abyss.
I want to reach for him, but I can’t, and he’s gone.
I scream, but there’s no sound and my mouth doesn’t move, it’s just my voice in my head, howling and howling into the silence.
The worm wraps around my ear canal and squeezes. My feet move, one step, two, toward the dull, red light, and oh God, I want to stop, but it moves me, marches me forward.
I bend and take up the bloody knife.
“It’s rising,” I say.
“This is the end,” Danny says.
I turn to face them. Please don’t let me die, don’t do this, don’t take me, I don’t want to die, I say, but it’s only in my mind. My jaw is set. My grip squeezes the hilt of the ancient blade. Huck’s blood slickens my fingers.
I raise the knife to my throat, touch it to skin. Oh God. I tense, will my arm to throw it, will my fingers to let it go. No! But the worm whispers, psss psss, and I slice.
Pain rips across my neck. Breath doesn’t come. It gurgles in my open throat. Warm blood washes down my chest.
My fingers release, and I hear the knife hit stone.
I stagger back one step. The edges of my vision tunnel.
Suddenly I’m free. I’m myself. No worm slithering in my ear, whispering, telling me what to do, driving me forward.
I grab my throat, put pressure on it, I can stop it, stop the bleeding, I can survive, if only Johnson or Danny can help, call someone, get me to the hospital, I can survive, I’m not dead, I’m not dead.
“No,” I say, the word drowning in a bubble of blood.
I teeter, fall, grab for the edge of the fissure, miss, and my leg gives. I plunge into the dull, red light, into the abyss.
An eye watches me fall. Watches from below. Rising. Coming. An eye that’s a mouth. It gapes, yawns, ready to swallow me, this is the end, the inferno pulsing heat beneath it, pushing it toward me, the beast, pushing it toward the fissure, toward the world, and I don’t want to die, I pinwheel, grapple for the walls, but there’s nothing, just the fall, and the dull, red light, and that eye that’s a mouth, waiting below to swallow me as it claws its way up.
This is the end.
Feb 24 2017
Rank #14: PseudoPod 539: The Fear
- Author : Richard Harland
- Narrator : Graeme Dunlop
- Host : Alasdair Stuart
- Audio Producer : Graeme Dunlop
- Discuss on Forums
“The Fear” was first printed in Macabra: A Journey Through Australia’s Darkest Fears in 2010 and reprinted in the US in Year’s Best Horror 2010.
“Yes – imagine that film! Even though it may not end up the way you expect, visualize just how it might look and sound on the screen!”
by Richard Harland
“It’s impossible to explain without visuals. You’d have to see the movie to know why it was so frightening. Think yourself lucky you never will.”
Apr 21 2017
Rank #15: PseudoPod 492 Replay: The Fisher Queen & The Eugie Award
- Author : Alyssa Wong
- Narrator : Mae Zarris-Heaney
- Host : Dagny Paul
- Audio Producer : Graeme Dunlop
- Artist : Eugie Foster
- Discuss on Forums
“The Fisher Queen” was first published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, May/June 2014.
Escape Artists would like to draw your attention to a fantastic event happening next week at DragonCon, the Eugie Foster Memorial Award for Short Fiction.
This annual award will be presented for the first time in 2016—for works published in 2015.The Eugie Award honors stories that are irreplaceable, that inspire, enlighten, and entertain. It will shine the spotlight on stories that are beautiful, thoughtful, and passionate. That change us and the field. The recipient will be a story that is unique and will become essential to speculative fiction readers.
The finalists for this award are:
“The Deepwater Bride” by Tamsin Muir
“Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers” by Alyssa Wong
“The Long Goodnight of Violet Wild” by Catherynne M. Valente
“Pocosin” by Ursula Vernon
“Three Cups of Grief, by Starlight” by Aliette De Bodard
To highlight how fantastic these authors are, we are re-running three stories on Escape Pod, PodCastle, and Pseudopod:
Escape Pod 408: Immersion by Aliette De Bodard
Podcastle 198: Urchins, While Swimming by Catherynne M. Valente
Pseudopod 492: The Fisher Queen by Alyssa Wong
Also make sure to check out Ursula Vernon’s story “Jackalope Wives” available to read for free at Mothership Zeta. And mark November on your calendar for an upcoming story by Tamsin Muir.
Pseudopod 492: The Fisher Queen
by Alyssa Wong
“The Fisher Queen” was first published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, May/June 2014. It is available to read free online at fu-GEN.org. “The Fisher Queen” was on the shortlist for the 2014 Nebula along with Eugie Foster’s last story, “When It Ends, He Catches Her” which ran last year on Pseudopod. It has been translated into Chinese, French, and German. “The Fisher Queen” is set up in the fashion of traditional oral storytelling, where truth and myth blend together. However, it’s about the very real effects of societal, systematic violence against women.
Alyssa Wong is a Shirley Jackson-, and World Fantasy Award-nominated author, shark aficionado, and 2013 graduate of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop. She made the shortlist for the 2015 Stoker Award and won the 2015 Nebula Award for “Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers” which you should go check out at Nightmare Magazine. Her work has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Strange Horizons, Tor.com, Uncanny Magazine, Lightspeed Magazine, and Black Static, among others. She is an MFA candidate at North Carolina State University and a member of the Manhattan-based writing group Altered Fluid, and can be found on Twitter @crashwong. Alyssa Wong has been deservedly shortlisted for the Joseph W. Campbell Award for New Writers this year, and “The Fisher Queen” is part of why she made it to the list.
Your narrator – Mae Heaney is originally from Manila, Philippines and currently lives in Melbourne, Australia with her Irish husband, 2 young children and Parmi the Chook. She is an IT professional who once briefly dabbled in theater, and loves to bake to tame the voices in her head. She is very successful in changing nappies under five minutes, but fails miserably in trying to read her toddler’s mind and in updating her blog celticpinaymom.blogspot.com.
Your guest host this week is Associate Editor Dagny Paul. Dagny is an 8th-grade English teacher who lives in New Orleans with her husband and four-year-old son. She has an unhealthy (but entertaining) obsession with comic books and horror movies.
MY MOTHER WAS A FISH. That’s why I can swim so well, according to my father, who is a plain fisherman with a fisherman’s plain logic, but uncanny flair for the dramatic. And while it’s true that I can cut through the water like a minnow, or a hand dipped over the edge of a speedboat, I personally think it’s because no one can grow up along the Mekong without learning two things: how to swim, and how to avoid the mermaids.
Mermaids, like my father’s favorite storytale version of my mother, are fish. They aren’t people. They are stupid like fish, they eat your garbage like fish, they sell on the open market like fish. Keep your kids out of the water, keep your trash locked up, and if they come close to land, scream a lot and bang pots together until they startle away. They’re pretty basic.
My sisters tried to talk to a mermaid once. It was caught up in one of Dad’s trammel nets, and when they went to check the net out back behind the house, they found this mermaid tangled in it. It was a freshwater one, a bottom-feeder, with long, sparse hair whose color my sisters still argue about to this day. Iris, the oldest, felt bad for it and made May splash some water on its fluttery gills with her red plastic pail. She asked the mermaid if it was okay, what its name was. But it just stared at her with its stupid sideways fish eyes, mouth gaping open and closed with mud trickling out over its whiskers. Then Dad came home and yelled at Iris and May for bringing in the nets too early and touching the mermaid, which probably had sea lice and all kinds of other diseases.
The post PseudoPod 492 Replay: The Fisher Queen & The Eugie Award appeared first on PseudoPod.
Aug 25 2016
Rank #16: PseudoPod 462: Flash On The Borderlands XXIX: Monsters
- Authors : Mike Allen, Julia Watson and Nina Kiriki Hoffman
- Narrators : Brian Rollins, Ben Kohanski and Kaitie Radel
- Host : Alasdair Stuart
- Audio Producer : Graeme Dunlop
- Discuss on Forums
PseudoPod 462: Flash On The Borderlands XXIX: Monsters is a PseudoPod original.
“Habeas Corpus” is original to PseudoPod.
“Monster” first appeared in Nameless Magazine, Issue 3, Spring 2014. “I got the idea while watching a documentary on the origins of fractals.”
“Stillborn” originally appeared in the first BORDERLANDS anthology from 1990 edited by Thomas F. Monteleone
“But the problem is to make the soul into a monster” – Arthur Rimbaud
by Julia Watson
narrated by Kaitie Radel
Bottom of the breath, I aim and squeeze. CRACK. Mr. Johnson, our next-door neighbor, falls. Goes still. His noisy mutt, the one you hated, used to welcome me at the end of his chain with rough fur and a wet tongue to wash my salt away. I’m glad that dog’s not here.
Another. A woman—hard to tell who. I fire. As her ruined face explodes into mist, I whisper my thanks to the fool who built a gazebo on this ugly spit of land overlooking Rustridge Canyon—named for the five generations’ worth of scrap refuse the town tossed into it. You’d say I was crazy, boxing myself in, but alone, it’s the only way to get this done.
by Mike Allen
narrated by Ben Kohanski
Since I grew tall enough to sit at a classroom desk, I’ve longed to be a monster. There is no reason for this that you or your friends in the department will ever be able to find, should you have an opportunity to delve into my history. My mother and father loved each other. They were neither too lenient nor too strict. The bullies in my school, the ones who introduced my fellow gifted students to cycles of humiliation and pain, paid no attention to me at all. My teachers never singled me out for praise or discipline.
by Nina Kiriki Hoffman
narrated by Brian Rollins
Hugh found it in the shallow grave his mother had dug behind the house. He kept it wrapped in cotton above a heat register in the attic, where the dry warmth would preserve it without rotting it. Once it had mummified, he locked his bedroom door and took it out to look at, nights after his mother had gone to bed. When lie shook it, its brain rattled inside its tiny skull like a pea in a gourd. “Little brother,” he would whisper, staring into its sunken leathery face. “Little brother.”
The post PseudoPod 462: Flash On The Borderlands XXIX: Monsters appeared first on PseudoPod.
Oct 31 2015
Rank #17: PseudoPod 550: Again
- Author : Ramsey Campbell
- Narrator : Ant Bacon
- Host : Alasdair Stuart
- Audio Producer : Marty Perrett
- Discuss on Forums
“Again” was first published in Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone Magazine, November 1981 and has been reprinted numerous times.
Info on Anders Manga’s album (they do our theme music!) can be found here.
All at once he was no longer sure that the groaning had been the sound of flies. Even so, if the old lady had been watching him he might never have been able to step forward. But she couldn’t see him, and he had to know. Though he couldn’t help tiptoeing, he forced himself to go to the head of the bed.
He wasn’t sure if he could lift the blanket, until he looked in the can of meat. At least it seemed to explain the smell, for the can must have been opened months ago. Rather than think about that—indeed, to give himself no time to think—he snatched the blanket away from the head of the figure at once.
Jul 07 2017
Rank #18: PseudoPod 568: The Room in the Other House
- Author : Kristi Demeester
- Narrator : Jacquie Duckworth
- Host : Alasdair Stuart
- Audio Producer : Marty Perrett
- Discuss on Forums
PseudoPod 568: The Room in the Other House is a PseudoPod original.
The Room in the Other House
by Kristi DeMeester
I’ve counted the moments we once had over and over. Tried to hold them in my hands as if they were solid, but in the end, there is nothing except for the dark scar tracing against my palm. If I squint, it looks like a worm. If I squint, it’s almost like you’re still here.
We found the house when we weren’t looking. Driving along back roads because there was nothing else to do. We’d had too much to drink the night before and needed coffee and open air that tasted of rainwater and the cloying scent of rotting wood. You took the turns too fast, and I squealed and pretended to be angry, but you grinned through all of it, and it was the kind of dangerous smile I loved.
“What if we just never went back?” you said, but it was a conversation we were always having. There was the house we’d just moved into. The one with the extra two-stall garage and bonus room. Space for your workshop. Space for all of that scrapped metal you called a “project.” There was the dog we adopted together when we decided this thing we were doing was more forever than not. There were Monday mornings and paychecks and doctor’s appointments and phone calls. We were not the kind of people to disappear.
And then you did.
You drove, and I let my eyes drift closed and ignored the dark star of a headache that had begun to form. When I opened my eyes, I didn’t recognize the road. The houses were more spaced out. A bleeding away from suburbia into country. Here and there, barbed wire fence lined the road, but there was no livestock penned behind it.
“Where are we?” I said.
You shrugged. “You got somewhere to be, pretty lady?”
“Got a hot date tonight. I need to shave,” I said, but it was loud with the windows down, and you didn’t hear. If you’d heard, you would have laughed.
You should have turned around. When you saw the sign, you should have turned around.
These are the things I tell myself now. The ways I trace my way back to you. Small consolations for all of the mistakes we made that day.
“The hell does that say?” you said when we passed the first sign. Only, it wasn’t a sign. Not really. Two planks of wood nailed together to form the top of a triangle, the bottom piece missing. A phrase painted in green and in all capitals.
“It’s too small,” I said, and then we were past it.
There were no more houses. Only fields and trees and the sky gone dark overhead with the threat of a storm, and your hand on my thigh and slipping up and under the skirt I wore, and there was no one to see us under that broad, unending sky, and I unbuckled your pants and took you in my mouth, and you worked your hand against me, and I came before you did.
It had been years since we’d done that. Like a couple of horny teenagers who’d managed to steal an hour alone, all fumbling hands and wet mouths. I left your jeans unzipped, and you drove with one hand on the wheel, and the other still kneading my thigh.
“There’s another one of those fucking signs,” you said, and this time you slowed down, came almost to a full stop, and leaned out the window. There are times when I think that I reached for you then. My fingers grasping for your shirt, your arm, your hand, any solid thing that would call you back to me, but then my memory is made up of all of these small betrayals, and I think that maybe I didn’t.
“The Father of Lies,” you said and popped the door.
“Get back in the car. You’re going to get us killed. We can’t just be stopped in the middle of the road.”
“You see anyone else out here? Just hold on a second.” You leaned further out, further away, and I turned to watch behind us.
“So fucking weird. The Father of Lies,” you said, but you didn’t close the door.
“Probably some Jesus thing. You know. Repent ye sinners, and all that stuff. Watch for The Father of Lies. He’ll eat your soul,” I said. You didn’t laugh. You didn’t move. Something cold crept along the back of my neck, but I told myself it was the wind or a bug or any of the other things you tell yourself when you don’t want to believe what’s in front of you.
“I don’t think so. It’s something different. Sounds like a scary movie,” you said. You did move then, the door slamming shut behind you, but the engine idled, and you still looked at the sign and lifted your finger in the air, traced the outline.
“Would you come on already? Let’s go,” I said. You turned away then, your hands back on the wheel, and we were moving again, and I tried to settle back into the quiet I’d found earlier, but everything inside of me had gone heavy and light at the same time. Like iron covering something hollow.
“Jesus. They’re everywhere,” you said and pointed. Ahead, the road twisted away, but dotted along the black top where at least five more of the signs. All that strange triangle with no bottom, the neat, green lettering. The Father of Lies.
“Let’s just turn around. Go back,” I said.
“It’s fine. It’s some weird church thing. Like you said. Right?”
“Yeah. Okay,” I said, but you rolled up your window. I like to think you did that for me. To make me feel safe.
When I dream now, everything is green, but you are not there.
You had slowed down to go around a turn—the kind that kids call The Widowmaker and race their bikes down—when I saw the house. It stood just off of the road, was not set back like most houses in the country. The windows were busted out, the wood on the porch rotted and the steps sagging. Another abandoned house in the woods. The kind people write books about.
I didn’t see the toddler until we rounded the corner, the road still curving so you braked even more, and we were moving as if underwater, as if each movement was a slower precursor to something larger.
There was a large, spreading oak tree in front of the house. A monstrous, gargantuan thing that someone would tell you to cut down in case a nasty storm came through. Exposed, gnarled roots against dark earth. A lovely, terrible thing that cast long shadows.
The toddler was underneath the tree, sprawled on his back, his hands dancing through the air as if conducting music only he could hear. Under the tree, he looked fragile, too small to be alone, but he was alone. The house was empty, and there were no other cars, no adults pondering the landscape or taking pictures or changing a flat tire.
“Slow down a second,” I said, and my skin prickled. I craned my neck, looked back to be sure. The toddler still lay on the ground, his pudgy hands lifted to the sky.
“I got it. It’s not like I’m going to flip the car.”
“No. There’s a kid back there. A little kid. Under the tree. I’m pretty sure he’s by himself.”
Your mouth turned down at the corners, and you squinted up into the rearview mirror, and it’s these small moments I miss the most. How your face would move as you were thinking or how when you slept, there were tiny lines next to your eyes. I wonder how long it will be before I start to forget these things.
“You probably just can’t see them,” you said, but you slowed the car again, and I unbuckled and turned around in the seat. The toddler was still there, under the tree, but his hands were at his sides now and his eyes closed, as if he’d drifted off to sleep. Panic slick against my tongue, I watched his chest, my heartbeat slowing just a bit when I finally saw the rise and fall of his breathing.
“There’s no one back there,” I said. You reversed the car then, backed up so that I could see the toddler more clearly. He couldn’t have been more than two with the kind of curling golden hair that make women coo and run their fingers through it. He was dressed simply. A navy shirt and khaki shorts. A pair of dark shoes.
“Stop,” I said. The car jerked beneath us. You’d braked too suddenly. I think it was because you’d finally seen him, too. “You see? There’s no one else around.”
“Holy shit.” Your voice dropped to a whisper.
“Who just leaves their kid in the middle of goddamn nowhere?”
“Maybe they’re around back, or something?”
“We would have seen them when we passed the house. There’s no one out front; no one in back. There sure as hell isn’t anyone inside. You can see straight through the windows to the back. Empty.”
“Okay. Hold on,” you said and looked behind you, backing the car up even further to pull off onto the shoulder.
I’d looked away from the toddler, just for a second to do another sweep of the land, the house, to see if there was someone, anyone, we had missed. A blur of skin and hair hidden behind a tree or a flash of color, a shirt or a pair of jeans, against the green. It couldn’t have been more than five seconds, maybe ten, but when I looked back, the toddler had vanished.
I grasped your shoulder. “He’s gone.”
“He’s gone. He’s not there anymore,” I said, and you peered past me, your mouth set in a thin line.
“He’s there,” you said and pointed, and my entire body sagged, the air rushing out of me. I turned to look. Through the busted out windows, I could see him. The toddler had gotten up and wandered inside the house, his chubby little legs jutting out from his shorts that were too small. I could see the dirt on his hands. It made me feel sick, and I remember thinking how strange it was, how awful to look at this child and feel as if I was coming apart, but then the toddler stepped away, and I saw what it was he was moving toward. A fire burned inside the main room. Flames leapt toward the ceiling and flickered just beneath the crumbling plaster.
“There’s a fire. Inside the house. Was there a fire before?” I shook my head. Couldn’t remember. There had been only those open windows like wide hungry mouths gaping around darkness. The trees. The grass. So much silence in this empty place. There had not been a fire, but it was possible I had not seen, possible that this was a new angle and I missed it before. Perhaps there was an adult here who had built it, someone to care for this tiny creature standing transfixed before the jumping flames.
“I don’t think so,” you said.
“I didn’t see…” I trailed off. The toddler crept forward, his hands outstretched as if to catch himself if he fell, but there was a part of me that saw it as an obscene mockery of prayer. But he was a child. Could barely talk. He wouldn’t be doing this. Couldn’t be.
“What is he doing?” you said and shifted forward so that you pressed against my back. This was the last time I touched you. The last time I felt your weight as something that was a part of myself. I’ve tried to call that sensation back, but I cannot remember anymore what it was really like. There is only the stain of it. A bleached out memory I cannot quite take hold of.
The toddler leaned forward, swaying in the way young children do when they are on the verge of losing their balance. “Oh my God,” I said because I knew what would come next, could see that terrible moment unfolding so that I could only reach for the door handle, my fingers banging against the metal and left aching, but I was too far away.
The child tipped forward, and I screamed.
In my mind, I still see those flames. Deep orange and almost beautiful. How they swallowed that small body in massive licks, the clothes, the hair, that smooth skin vanishing so quickly.
I heard you opening your door behind me, but I was moving, throwing open the rear car door to search for anything I could find that could smother the flames, and then I was running, an old towel clutched to my chest as I gasped out something like prayer or like please or like not yet, and I found that I was no longer screaming, my mouth opened wide, but the air around me plucked the sound from my lips.
I was up the front stairs and through the front door, which stood open on broken hinges. My hands shook because my body had memorized what it was I needed to do, but it knew what would come after, and the fear of seeing that small form shriveled and blackened was more terrible than anything I could conjure.
“Oh, God.” There was nothing else to say. Nothing else to do but run toward the wheeling column of flame, my arms extended.
I don’t know when you stopped following me. I didn’t think to look. I only know where I found you before I lost you again.
Before I threw the towel over the child, he turned to look at me, and I could see his face. A slight darkening around the mouth. His eyes so pale they were almost white, bleeding into the sclera. I thought he smiled at me. An impossible thing, but there is the memory, clear and bright, and even after everything that came later, I cannot forget the shape of his small teeth.
“Okay. It’s okay,” I said and threw the towel over him, ready to throw him to the ground and snuff out the flames. When I did, the towel met only air. It fell to the ground with a soft whump. There was no child there in that house. There was nothing.
I held myself still, a whine building in the back of my throat because I knew then that whatever I’d seen, it was wrong. Something that should not be, and I curled into myself, unable to leave this nightmare we’d stumbled into. A line of sweat crept down my neck, and the air tasted of something of foul.
I called your name, but the air was dead. Silent. No bird song or wind. Unnatural. I knew we needed to leave, get back into the car and drive away, not glancing back like Lot’s wife who died with the taste of salt on her lips.
But then I was trying to leave that terrible, empty place behind, and I was saying your name over and over until I knew that I was screaming again, but there was only the walls with peeling paint and exposed wood and gouged floors as if something monstrous had dragged its body over them.
When you answered, your voice sounded far away, but you were only in the next room. Down a small hallway in what looked like a bedroom, but it was too large to be a bedroom. The ceilings opened to the sky, and the floors seemed to stretch away and away. You faced the back wall, your hand against it as if I’d stumbled on you knocking.
“The kid. He disappeared. Just vanished into nothing. We have to leave. We have to leave right now. There’s something wrong here,” I said, and you glanced over your shoulder and then turned back.
“There’s a door. I saw it.”
“It doesn’t matter. We have to go. Now. Please,” I said. You lifted your hand and traced over the wall. I imagine there was dust on your fingers, some ancient reminder of what had once existed here, of whatever still lingered in the silence.
“Wait. Just a minute. Something’s here,” you said, and I remember how you stepped forward, how you pressed your mouth to the wall, how you opened it, your tongue trailing over that crumbling paint.
“Stop it,” I said, but you moaned, your back arching as if something inside of you longed to get out. I turned away, could not bring myself to touch you, to pull you from whatever terrible thing you’d found.
“I can open it. There’s a room there. In the other house,” you said, and you shifted forward, your fingers slipping under some latch I could not see. You grinned. Large. Toothsome. “See? Like the Father of Lies. Something you can see through and exist in at the same time.”
“Don’t. We don’t know what it is,” I said, but you were already through, and I tried not to think of how you’d mentioned the Father of Lies.
“Of course we do. It’s a room in the other house. I’ve already said.”
You went through the door, vanishing all at once into whatever lay beyond. I stood on the other side waiting for you to come back, but I could only hear your voice, the breathless, edgy rasp in it as if you’d been running for a long, long time.
When I heard the dog bark, I crept toward the door—nothing more than an extension of the wall that jutted outward—and called your name, but I did not look through. Not yet. I wonder if I hadn’t looked through, if you would have come back. But I did. And you were there, standing in the middle of a room with nothing in it. No furniture or curtains or pictures on the walls. Smiling and tanned and without the small paunch you’d been putting on over the past two years. Too much beer and too little exercise. The comfort of middle age and a stable relationship settling under our skins and leaving us as less than what we began.
Our dog—the Swiss Mountain Dog mix we’d adopted together because it was something that would belong to the both of us—sat beside you, her left ear cocked as if listening for a pitch we could not hear.
“It’s Nona. We must have left her here somehow,” you said, and Nona looked back at me, but it was not Nona. Not really. Her fur was a bit too thin. Too greasy looking. Her eyes lighter than they should be. Not the color of dark amber but of honey.
“It isn’t Nona. Come out. We have to go,” I said, and you scratched the dog behind the ears and cooed something at her.
“I’ll put her in the car, and we can go. Okay?”
My heart lurched, liquid and hot, in my chest. “No. We’ll get home, and Nona will be there, all curled up on her bed, waiting for us. And whatever that is—” I pointed at the dog. “What will it become once we get there? What will we have brought home with us?”
“Come in, love. Help me,” you said, and the dog opened its mouth then, but the sound that came out of it was not the sound of a dog. It was a child’s laughter. Then a scream.
“No. I want to go home,” I said, but my voice was next to nothing, and you turned and walked away, the motions of your body fluid and lovely and not the lumbering gait I’d memorized the night I fell in love with you.
The dog followed you, but its head still angled to face me, that terrible mouth still open as you turned toward some hallway I couldn’t see, and then you were gone.
I waited there outside of the door until it was dark, a damp chill creeping over my skin. I whispered your name. Over and over until it was a word I no longer recognized as something that had once belonged to me. I clenched the handle of the door tight enough to cut into the soft flesh of my palm. The scar has become a constant reminder that you have fallen into a place I cannot find.
Later, there were police officers. Your mother flew in from Arizona and we sat together at the little table you and I bought at the antique store and drank cup after cup of coffee as she asked the same questions over and over.
Why can’t they find him? How can an entire house just vanish? No one’s ever heard of anything called The Father of Lies. There are no signs about it anywhere. Not like you said. Are you sure it was a house? Are you sure of where it was? Are you sure?
Always, I had the same answers, the same repeated phrases that added up to less than nothing. Her eyes and the thin line of her mouth grew harder every day until she left without hugging me goodbye.
The police asked those same questions, but with more technicalities. Was he unhappy? Had you argued recently? Was there any reason to believe he would have harmed himself? Are you sure of where the house was?
They searched the car. Our house. They interviewed everyone, asking what kind of person I was, if there was any reason to believe I could have committed some kind of violence against you.
After a year, they stopped asking, and you became another body vanished. Another person eaten by things we’ll never understand. And I’ve been waiting. All of this time. So many nights passing as I stare at the shadows on our ceiling and wait for the feeling of you pulling back the comforter to climb in beside me, the deep smell of your skin, but I am alone in this house that we found, the start of our life together thrown into this unnatural stasis.
It has been a year and a half since you walked into that room in the other house. The house I cannot find, on a road that doesn’t seem to exist. I’ve researched The Father of Lies but there’s nothing on the Internet except for thousands of entries about a Bible verse, but none of it adds up to anything that will bring you back. Nothing in any of the libraries I’ve visited, with their gray-haired ladies who twist up their mouths when I ask them if they’ve ever seen anything like that before.
I am different now. Thinner. The planes of my face are sharp and hungry. My hair cropped close so that I don’t have to brush it. I do not think you would fall in love with me if you saw me now.
It has been a year and a half of learning how to navigate around the space you left.
When the door appears in our house it is winter. A thin crust of snow lies over dead earth. There is a sky that looks drained of color, caught between gray and white. I am looking for the spare set of sheets we’d bought when I find it. Standing no taller than my shoulders and narrow, hiding in a place where there has never been a door before.
I know now that you are trying to find a way back to me.
I throw open the door and peer inside. It is a room I’ve seen before. In the other house. The one I cannot find.
The room in the other house is dark. Empty. I sink to the floor, clinging to the knob. You are not there. After all this time, you are not there.
“You have to be here,” I say into the darkness, and I hear something shift. A soft exhalation. A sound that could have been a sigh.
You do not emerge from the shadows, do not come rushing forward with arms outstretched, and I bite my wrist so I will not sob.
But then there is your voice, gentle and sweet, and you speak to me from the darkness, and the door seems to open wider, the whole world spilling forward.
“Where have you been? How did I lose you?” you say, and I cry out then, my hands trembling as I inch myself toward the threshold.
“Come out. Please. Follow my voice. I’m here,” I say.
“Come through so I can see you. I need to see you. Your face.”
Still, I see nothing in that room. Nothing that could be you, but your voice goes on and on. There is nothing else I want to hear.
“Come through the door. I’ve missed you so much,” you say.
I close my eyes. Extend my hands so they are inside the room where you were lost. The air is damp, and I hold my hands out to you, palm up, as if in supplication.
I lean forward and into the darkness breathe one word. I hope it will be enough.
Nov 10 2017
Rank #19: PseudoPod 457: Escape From Kroo Bay
- Author : Byron Barton
- Narrator : Elan Ressel
- Host : Alasdair Stuart
- Audio Producer : Graeme Dunlop
- Discuss on Forums
PseudoPod 457: Escape From Kroo Bay is a PseudoPod original.
Escape From Kroo Bay
by Byron Barton
Kossi glanced at the dead body sprawled across the bus stop floor. One ragged leg was draped over a weathered wooden bench while the torso was splayed in a half-twist over pitted concrete. Old newspapers and candy wrappers partially covered the corpse like a loose patchwork quilt. If not for the slack in the man’s jaws and dark goo pooling in his worn denim shirt, the corpse might simply be a passed out drunk.
Dead bodies on the street weren’t common in Freetown, but they weren’t particularly unusual, either. Kossi shuttered, thinking back to the civil war, when the RUF had temporarily taken the city and left behind enough stiffs and severed limbs to fill a dozen mass graves. Ebola hadn’t left nearly as many bodies behind, but the panic was the same. At least they could see the rebels. At least they could hide or beg or buy their way out of trouble. Ebola was invisible, and as indiscriminate as a child soldier jacked up on brown-brown.
Sep 25 2015
Rank #20: PseudoPod 449: How To Remember
- Author : Sylvia Anna Hivén
- Narrator : Patrick Bazile
- Host : Alasdair Stuart
- Audio Producer : Graeme Dunlop
- Discuss on Forums
“How To Remember” won the 2014 Parsec Short Story Contest and appeared in the 2014 Confluence program book, July 25, 2014.
How To Remember
by Sylvia Anna Hivén
The painted woman shimmered bronze-red against the desert. I didn’t know if I’d ever catch up with her, but still I whipped my ragged horse on, doing everything in my might to not let that little speck of a savage vanish over the horizon.
My throat itched with hot dust, which bothered me, and my horse’s hooves bled, and that was no good neither—the fanged mustangs would smell it, and the black-hounds, too. But I followed that painted woman like the devil chasing a damned soul, because that woman had stolen Ellie.
_You get my daughter back, Jeremiah. You get her back, or this ain’t your homestead anymore._
I couldn’t remember Clementine’s face much, in the feverish desert and with the sun so unwilling to set—so unwilling to do anything but bake, and char, and burn, and make a man miserable. But my wife’s words burned more than the sun, and even if I didn’t remember quite how she looked when I’d left, I could pretty much imagine her. My mind conjured up images of her tear-dusty face and the way she’d writhe her hands—not despairingly, but like a warning what all would happen if I failed. That was Clementine: pretty and frail on the outside, a wispy ghost of a girl in her thin cotton dress, but when she wanted to she could be something else—something nearly as wicked as the desert and the vile creatures crawling in its cracks. And she wanted Ellie back. So I had ridden out.
I was still riding, ignoring the flicker of scarlet the horse left on our trail, not caring how damn parched I was and how I had no idea when I’d refill my water skin. And I ignored how the life I was desperate to put back together, in my icy-cold fever, I barely remembered anymore.
Jul 31 2015