Rank #1: PseudoPod 647: The Algorithms for Love
- Author : Ken Liu
- Narrator : Dani Daly
- Host : Alasdair Stuart
- Audio Producer : Chelsea Davis
- Discuss on Forums
“The Algorithms for Love” was originally published by Strange Horizons in 2004.
The Algorithms for Love
by Ken Liu
So long as the nurse is in the room to keep an eye on me, I am allowed to dress myself and get ready for Brad. I slip on an old pair of jeans and a scarlet turtleneck sweater. I’ve lost so much weight that the jeans hang loosely from the bony points of my hips.
“Let’s go spend the weekend in Salem,” Brad says to me as he walks me out of the hospital, an arm protectively wrapped around my waist, “just the two of us.”
I wait in the car while Dr. West speaks with Brad just outside the hospital doors. I can’t hear them but I know what she’s telling him. “Make sure she takes her Oxetine every four hours. Don’t leave her alone for any length of time.”
Brad drives with a light touch on the pedals, the same way he used to when I was pregnant with Aimée. The traffic is smooth and light, and the foliage along the highway is postcard-perfect. The Oxetine relaxes the muscles around my mouth, and in the vanity mirror I see that I have a beatific smile on my face.
“I love you.” He says this quietly, the way he has always done, as if it were the sound of breathing and heartbeat.
I wait a few seconds. I picture myself opening the door and throwing my body onto the highway but of course I don’t do anything. I can’t even surprise myself.
“I love you too.” I look at him when I say this, the way I have always done, as if it were the answer to some question. He looks at me, smiles, and turns his eyes back to the road.
To him this means that the routines are back in place, that he is talking to the same woman he has known all these years, that things are back to normal. We are just another tourist couple from Boston on a mini-break for the weekend: stay at a bed-and-breakfast, visit the museums, recycle old jokes.
It’s an algorithm for love.
I want to scream.
The first doll I designed was called Laura. Clever Laura .
Laura had brown hair and blue eyes, fully articulated joints, twenty motors, a speech synthesizer in her throat, two video cameras disguised by the buttons on her blouse, temperature and touch sensors, and a microphone behind her nose. None of it was cutting-edge technology, and the software techniques I used were at least two decades old. But I was still proud of my work. She retailed for fifty dollars.
Not Your Average Toy could not keep up with the orders that were rolling in, even three months before Christmas. Brad, the CEO, went on CNN and MSNBC and TTV and the rest of the alphabet soup until the very air was saturated with Laura.
I tagged along on the interviews to give the demos because, as the VP of Marketing explained to me, I looked like a mother (even though I wasn’t one) and (he didn’t say this, but I could listen between the lines) I was blonde and pretty. The fact that I was Laura’s designer was an afterthought.
The first time I did a demo on TV was for a Hong Kong crew. Brad wanted me to get comfortable with being in front of the cameras before bringing me to the domestic morning shows.
We sat to the side while Cindy, the anchorwoman, interviewed the CEO of some company that made “moisture meters.” I hadn’t slept for forty-eight hours. I was so nervous I’d brought six Lauras with me, just in case five of them decided in concert to break down. Then Brad turned to me and whispered, “What do you think moisture meters are used for?”
I didn’t know Brad that well, having been at Not Your Average Toy for less than a year. I had chatted with him a few times before, but it was all professional. He seemed a very serious, driven sort of guy, the kind you could picture starting his first company while he was still in high school — arbitraging class notes, maybe. I wasn’t sure why he was asking me about moisture meters. Was he trying to see if I was too nervous?
“I don’t know. Maybe for cooking?” I ventured.
“Maybe,” he said. Then he gave me a conspiratorial wink. “But I think the name sounds kind of dirty.”
It was such an unexpected thing, coming from him, that for a moment I almost thought he was serious. Then he smiled, and I laughed out loud. I had a very hard time keeping a straight face while we waited for our turn, and I certainly wasn’t nervous any more.
Brad and the young anchorwoman, Cindy, chatted amiably about Not Your Average Toy’s mission (“Not Average Toys for Not Average Kids”) and how Brad had come up with the idea for Laura. (Brad had nothing to do with the design, of course, since it was all my idea. But his answer was so good it almost convinced me that Laura was really his brainchild.) Then it was time for the dog-and-pony show.
I put Laura on the desk, her face towards the camera. I sat to the side of the desk. “Hello, Laura.”
Laura turned her head to me, the motors so quiet you couldn’t hear their whirr. “Hi! What’s your name?”
“I’m Elena,” I said.
“Nice to meet you,” Laura said. “I’m cold.”
The air conditioning was a bit chilly. I hadn’t even noticed.
Cindy was impressed. “That’s amazing. How much can she say?”
“Laura has a vocabulary of about two thousand English words, with semantic and syntactic encoding for common suffixes and prefixes. Her speech is regulated by a context-free grammar.” The look in Brad’s eye let me know that I was getting too technical. “That means that she’ll invent new sentences and they’ll always be syntactically correct.”
“I like new, shiny, new, bright, new, handsome clothes,” Laura said.
“Though they may not always make sense,” I added.
“Can she learn new words?” Cindy asked.
Laura turned her head the other way, to look at her. “I like learn-ing, please teach me a new word!”
I made a mental note that the speech synthesizer still had bugs that would have to be fixed in the firmware.
Cindy was visibly unnerved by the doll turning to face her on its own and responding to her question.
“Does she” — she searched for the right word — “understand me?”
“No, no.” I laughed. So did Brad. And a moment later Cindy joined us. “Laura’s speech algorithm is augmented with a Markov generator interspersed with-” Brad gave me that look again. “Basically, she just babbles sentences based on keywords in what she hears. And she has a small set of stock phrases that are triggered the same way.”
“Oh, it really seemed like she knew what I was saying. How does she learn new words?”
“It’s very simple. Laura has enough memory to learn hundreds of new words. However, they have to be nouns. You can show her the object while you are trying to teach her what it is. She has some very sophisticated pattern recognition capabilities and can even tell faces apart.”
For the rest of the interview I assured nervous parents that Laura would not require them to read the manual, that Laura would not explode when dropped in water, and no, she would never utter a naughty word, even if their little princesses “accidentally” taught Laura one.
“‘Bye,” Cindy said to Laura at the end of the interview, and waved at her.
“‘Bye,” Laura said. “You are nice.” She waved back.
Every interview followed the same pattern. The moment when Laura first turned to the interviewer and answered a question there was always some awkwardness and unease. Seeing an inanimate object display intelligent behavior had that effect on people. They probably all thought the doll was possessed. Then I would explain how Laura worked and everyone would be delighted. I memorized the non-technical, warm-and-fuzzy answers to all the questions until I could recite them even without my morning coffee. I got so good at it that I sometimes coasted through entire interviews on autopilot, not even paying attention to the questions and letting the same words I heard over and over again spark off my responses.
The interviews, along with all the other marketing tricks, did their job. We had to outsource manufacturing so quickly that for a while every shantytown along the coast of China must have been turning out Lauras.
The foyer of the bed-and-breakfast we are staying at is predictably filled with brochures from local attractions. Most of them are witch-themed. The lurid pictures and language somehow manage to convey moral outrage and adolescent fascination with the occult at the same time.
David, the innkeeper, wants us to check out Ye Olde Poppet Shoppe, featuring “Dolls Made by Salem’s Official Witch.” Bridget Bishop, one of the twenty executed during the Salem Witch Trials, was convicted partly based on the hard evidence of “poppets” found in her cellar with pins stuck in them.
Maybe she was just like me, a crazy, grown woman playing with dolls. The very idea of visiting a doll shop makes my stomach turn.
While Brad is asking David about restaurants and possible discounts I go up to our room. I want to be sleeping, or at least pretending to be sleeping, by the time he comes up. Maybe then he will leave me alone, and give me a few minutes to think. It’s hard to think with the Oxetine. There’s a wall in my head, a gauzy wall that tries to cushion every thought with contentment.
If only I can remember what went wrong.
For our honeymoon Brad and I went to Europe. We went on the transorbital shuttle, the tickets for which cost more than my yearly rent. But we could afford it. Witty Kimberly , our latest model, was selling well, and the stock price was transorbital itself.
When we got back from the shuttleport, we were tired but happy. And I still couldn’t quite believe that we were in our own home, thinking of each other as husband and wife. It felt like playing house. We made dinner together, like we used to when we were dating (like always, Brad was wildly ambitious but couldn’t follow a recipe longer than a paragraph and I had to come and rescue his shrimp étouffée). The familiarity of the routine made everything seem more real.
Over dinner Brad told me something interesting. According to a market survey, over 20% of the customers for Kimberly were not buying it for their kids at all. They played with the dolls themselves.
“Many of them are engineers and comp sci students,” Brad said. “And there are already tons of Net sites devoted to hacking efforts on Kimberly. My favorite one had step-by-step instructions on how to teach Kimberly to make up and tell lawyer jokes. I can’t wait to see the faces of the guys in the legal department when they get to drafting the cease-and-desist letter for that one.”
I could understand the interest in Kimberly. When I was struggling with my problem sets at MIT I would have loved to take apart something like Kimberly to figure out how she worked. How it worked, I corrected myself mentally. Kimberly’s illusion of intelligence was so real that sometimes even I unconsciously gave her, it, too much credit.
“Actually, maybe we shouldn’t try to shut the hacking efforts down,” I said. “Maybe we can capitalize on it. We can release some of the APIs and sell a developer’s kit for the geeks.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, Kimberly is a toy, but that doesn’t mean only little girls would be interested in her.” I gave up trying to manage the pronouns. “She does, after all, have the most sophisticated, working, natural conversation library in the world.”
“A library that you wrote,” Brad said. Well, maybe I was a little vain about it. But I’d worked damned hard on that library and I was proud of it.
“It would be a shame if the language processing module never got any application besides sitting in a doll that everyone is going to forget in a year. We can release the interface to the modules at least, a programming guide, and maybe even some of the source code. Let’s see what happens and make an extra dollar while we’re at it.” I never got into academic AI research because I couldn’t take the tedium, but I did have greater ambitions than just making talking dolls. I wanted to see smart and talking machines doing something real, like teaching kids to read or helping the elderly with chores.
I knew that he would agree with me in the end. Despite his serious exterior he was willing to take risks and defy expectations. It was why I loved him.
I got up to clear the dishes. His hand reached across the table and grabbed mine. “Those can wait,” he said. He walked around the table, pulling me to him. I looked into his eyes. I loved the fact that I knew him so well I could tell what he was going to say before he said it. Let’s make a baby, I imagined him saying. Those would have been the only words right for that moment.
And so he did.
I’m not asleep when Brad finishes asking about restaurants and comes upstairs. In my drugged state, even pretending is too difficult.
Brad wants to go to the pirate museum. I tell him that I don’t want to see anything violent. He agrees immediately. That’s what he wants to hear from his content, recovering wife.
So now we wander around the galleries of the Peabody Essex Museum, looking at the old treasures of the Orient from Salem’s glory days.
The collection of china is terrible. The workmanship in the bowls and saucers is inexcusable. The patterns look like they were traced on by children. According to the placards, these were what the Cantonese merchants exported for foreign consumption. They would never have sold such stuff in China itself.
I read the description written by a Jesuit priest who visited the Cantonese shops of the time.
The craftsmen sat in a line, each with his own brush and specialty. The first drew only the mountains, the next only the grass, the next only the flowers, and the next only the animals. They went on down the line, passing the plates from one to the next, and it took each man only a few seconds to complete his part.
So the “treasures” are nothing more than mass-produced cheap exports from an ancient sweatshop and assembly line. I imagine painting the same blades of grass on a thousand teacups a day: the same routine, repeated over and over, with maybe a small break for lunch. Reach out, pick up the cup in front of you with your left hand, dip the brush, one, two, three strokes, put the cup behind you, rinse and repeat. What a simple algorithm. It’s so human.
Brad and I fought for three months before he agreed to produce Aimée, just plain Aimée .
We fought at home, where night after night I laid out the same forty-one reasons why we should and he laid out the same thirty-nine reasons why we shouldn’t. We fought at work, where people stared through the glass door at Brad and me gesticulating at each other wildly, silently.
I was so tired that night. I had spent the whole evening locked away in my study, struggling to get the routines to control Aimée’s involuntary muscle spasms right. It had to be right or she wouldn’t feel real, no matter how good the learning algorithms were.
I came up to the bedroom. There was no light. Brad had gone to bed early. He was exhausted too. We had again hurled the same reasons at each other during dinner.
He wasn’t asleep. “Are we going to go on like this?” He asked in the darkness.
I sat down on my side of the bed and undressed. “I can’t stop it,” I said. “I miss her too much. I’m sorry.”
He didn’t say anything. I finished unbuttoning my blouse and turned around. With the moonlight coming through the window I could see that his face was wet. I started crying too.
When we both finally stopped, Brad said, “I miss her too.”
“I know,” I said. But not like me.
“It won’t be anything like her, you know?” He said.
“I know,” I said.
The real Aimée had lived for ninety-one days. Forty-five of those days she’d spent under the glass hood in intensive care, where I could not touch her except for brief doctor-supervised sessions. But I could hear her cries. I could always hear her cries. In the end I tried to break through the glass with my hands, and I beat my palms against the unyielding glass until the bones broke and they sedated me.
I could never have another child. The walls of my womb had not healed properly and never would. By the time that piece of news was given to me Aimée was a jar of ashes in my closet.
But I could still hear her cries.
How many other women were like me? I wanted something to fill my arms, something to learn to speak, to walk, to grow a little, long enough for me to say goodbye, long enough to quiet those cries. But not a real child. I couldn’t deal with another real child. It would feel like a betrayal.
With a little plastiskin, a little synthgel, the right set of motors and a lot of clever programming, I could do it. Let technology heal all wounds.
Brad thought the idea an abomination. He was revolted. He couldn’t understand.
I fumbled around in the dark for some tissues for Brad and me.
“This may ruin us, and the company,” he said.
“I know,” I said. I lay down. I wanted to sleep.
“Let’s do it, then,” he said.
I didn’t want to sleep any more.
“I can’t take it,” he said. “Seeing you like this. Seeing you in so much pain tears me up. It hurts too much.”
I started crying again. This understanding, this pain. Was this what love was about?
Right before I fell asleep Brad said, “Maybe we should think about changing the name of the company.”
“Well, I just realized that ‘Not Your Average Toy’ sounds pretty funny to the dirty-minded.”
I smiled. Sometimes the vulgar is the best kind of medicine.
“I love you.”
“I love you too.”
Brad hands me the pills. I obediently take them and put them in my mouth. He watches as I sip from the glass of water he hands me.
“Let me make a few phone calls,” he says. “You take a nap, okay?” I nod.
As soon as he leaves the room I spit out the pills into my hand. I go into the bathroom and rinse out my mouth. I lock the door behind me and sit down on the toilet. I try to recite the digits of pi. I manage fifty-four places. That’s a good sign. The Oxetine must be wearing off.
I look into the mirror. I stare into my eyes, trying to see through to the retinas, matching photoreceptor with photoreceptor, imagining their grid layout. I turn my head from side to side, watching the muscles tense and relax in turn. That effect would be hard to simulate.
But there’s nothing in my face, nothing real behind that surface. Where is the pain, the pain that made love real, the pain of understanding?
“You okay, sweetie?” Brad says through the bathroom door.
I turn on the faucet and splash water on my face. “Yes,” I say. “I’m going to take a shower. Can you get some snacks from that store we saw down the street?”
Giving him something to do reassures him. I hear the door to the room close behind him. I turn off the faucet and look back into the mirror, at the way the water droplets roll down my face, seeking the canals of my wrinkles.
The human body is a marvel to recreate. The human mind, on the other hand, is a joke. Believe me, I know.
No, Brad and I patiently explained over and over to the cameras, we had not created an “artificial child.” That was not our intention and that was not what we had done. It was a way to comfort the grieving mothers. If you needed Aimée, you would know.
I would walk down the street and see women walking with bundles carefully held in their arms. And occasionally I would know, I would know beyond a doubt, by the sound of a particular cry, by the way a little arm waved. I would look into the faces of the women, and be comforted.
I thought I had moved on, recovered from the grieving process. I was ready to begin another project, a bigger project that would really satisfy my ambition and show the world my skills. I was ready to get on with my life.
Tara took four years to develop. I worked on her in secret while designing other dolls that would sell. Physically Tara looked like a five-year old girl. Expensive transplant-quality plastiskin and synthgel gave her an ethereal and angelic look. Her eyes were dark and clear, and you could look into them forever.
I never finished Tara’s movement engine. In retrospect that was probably a blessing. As a temporary placeholder during development I used the facial expression engine sent in by the Kimberly enthusiasts at MIT’s Media Lab. Augmented with many more fine micromotors than Kimberly had, she could turn her head, blink her eyes, wrinkle her nose, and generate thousands of convincing facial expressions. Below the neck she was paralyzed.
But her mind, oh, her mind.
I used the best quantum processors and the best solid-state storage matrices to run multi-layered, multi-feedback neural nets. I threw in the Stanford Semantic Database and added my own modifications. The programming was beautiful. It was truly a work of art. The data model alone took me over six months.
I taught her when to smile and when to frown, and I taught her how to speak and how to listen. Each night I analyzed the activation graphs for the nodes in the neural nets, trying to find and resolve problems before they occurred.
Brad never saw Tara while she was in development. He was too busy trying to control the damage from Aimée, and then, later, pushing the new dolls. I wanted to surprise him.
I put Tara in a wheelchair, and I told Brad that she was the daughter of a friend. Since I had to run some errands, could he entertain her while I was gone for a few hours? I left them in my office.
When I came back two hours later, I found Brad reading to her from The Golem of Prague, “‘Come,’ said the Great Rabbi Loew, ‘Open your eyes and speak like a real person!’“
That was just like Brad, I thought. He had his sense of irony.
“All right,” I interrupted him. “Very funny. I get the joke. So how long did it take you?”
He smiled at Tara. “We’ll finish this some other time,” he said. Then he turned to me. “How long did it take me what?”
“To figure it out.”
“Figure out what?”
“Stop kidding around,” I said. “Really, what was it that gave her away?”
“Gave what away?” Brad and Tara said at the same time.
Nothing Tara ever said or did was a surprise to me. I could predict everything she would say before she said it. I’d coded everything in her, after all, and I knew exactly how her neural nets changed with each interaction.
But no one else suspected anything. I should have been elated. My doll was passing a real-life Turing Test. But I was frightened. The algorithms made a mockery of intelligence, and no one seemed to know. No one seemed to even care.
I finally broke the news to Brad after a week. After the initial shock he was delighted (as I knew he would be).
“Fantastic,” he said. “We’re now no longer just a toy company. Can you imagine the things we can do with this? You’ll be famous, really famous!”
He prattled on and on about the potential applications. Then he noticed my silence. “What’s wrong?”
So I told him about the Chinese Room.
The philosopher John Searle used to pose a puzzle for the AI researchers. Imagine a room, he said, a large room filled with meticulous clerks who are very good at following orders but who speak only English. Into this room are delivered a steady stream of cards with strange symbols on them. The clerks have to draw other strange symbols on blank cards in response and send the cards out of the room. In order to do this, the clerks have large books, full of rules in English like this one: “When you see a card with a single horizontal squiggle followed by a card with two vertical squiggles, draw a triangle on a blank card and hand it to the clerk to your right.” The rules contain nothing about what the symbols might mean.
It turns out that the cards coming into the room are questions written in Chinese, and the clerks, by following the rules, are producing sensible answers in Chinese. But could anything involved in this process — the rules, the clerks, the room as a whole, the storm of activity — be said to have understood a word of Chinese? Substitute “processor” for the clerks and substitute “program” for the books of rules, then you’ll see that the Turing Test will never prove anything, and AI is an illusion.
But you can also carry the Chinese Room Argument the other way: substitute “neurons” for the clerks and substitute the physical laws governing the cascading of activating potentials for the books of rules; then how can any of us ever be said to “understand” anything? Thought is an illusion.
“I don’t understand,” Brad said. “What are you saying?”
A moment later I realized that that was exactly what I’d expected him to say.
“Brad,” I said, staring into his eyes, willing him to understand. “I’m scared. What if we are just like Tara?”
“We? You mean people? What are you talking about?”
“What if,” I said, struggling to find the words, “we are just following some algorithm from day to day? What if our brain cells are just looking up signals from other signals? What if we are not thinking at all? What if what I’m saying to you now is just a predetermined response, the result of mindless physics?”
“Elena,” Brad said, “you’re letting philosophy get in the way of reality.”
I need sleep, I thought, feeling hopeless.
“I think you need to get some sleep,” Brad said.
I handed the coffee-cart girl the money as she handed me the coffee. I stared at the girl. She looked so tired and bored at eight in the morning that she made me feel tired.
I need a vacation.
“I need a vacation,” she said, sighing exaggeratedly.
I walked past the receptionist’s desk. Morning, Elena.
Say something different, please. I clenched my teeth. Please.
“Morning, Elena,” she said.
I paused outside Ogden’s cube. He was the structural engineer. The weather, last night’s game, Brad.
He saw me and got up. “Nice weather we’re having, eh?” He wiped the sweat from his forehead and smiled at me. He jogged to work. “Did you see the game last night? Best shot I’ve seen in ten years. Unbelievable. Hey, is Brad in yet?” His face was expectant, waiting for me to follow the script, the comforting routines of life.
The algorithms ran their determined courses, and our thoughts followed one after another, as mechanical and as predictable as the planets in their orbits. The watchmaker was the watch.
I ran into my office and closed the door behind me, ignoring the expression on Ogden’s face. I walked over to my computer and began to delete files.
“Hi,” Tara said. “What are we going to do today?”
I shut her off so quickly that I broke a nail on the hardware switch. I ripped out the power supply in her back. I went to work with my screwdriver and pliers. After a while I switched to a hammer. Was I killing?
Brad burst in the door. “What are you doing?”
I looked up at him, my hammer poised for another strike. I wanted to tell him about the pain, the terror that opened up an abyss around me.
In his eyes I could not find what I wanted to see. I could not see understanding.
I swung the hammer.
Brad had tried to reason with me, right before he had me committed.
“This is just an obsession,” he said. “People have always associated the mind with the technological fad of the moment. When they believed in witches and spirits, they thought there was a little man in the brain. When they had mechanical looms and player pianos, they thought the brain was an engine. When they had telegraphs and telephones, they thought the brain was a wire network. Now you think the brain is just a computer. Snap out of it. That is the illusion.”
Trouble was, I knew he was going to say that.
“It’s because we’ve been married for so long!” He shouted. “That’s why you think you know me so well!”
I knew he was going to say that too.
“You’re running around in circles,” he said, defeat in his voice. “You’re just spinning in your head.”
Loops in my algorithm. FOR and WHILE loops.
“Come back to me. I love you.”
What else could he have said?
Now finally alone in the bathroom of the inn, I look down at my hands, at the veins running under the skin. I press my hands together and feel my pulse. I kneel down. Am I praying? Flesh and bones, and good programming.
My knees hurt against the cold tile floor.
The pain is real, I think. There’s no algorithm for the pain. I look down at my wrists, and the scars startle me. This is all very familiar, like I’ve done this before. The horizontal scars, ugly and pink like worms, rebuke me for failure. Bugs in the algorithm.
That night comes back to me: the blood everywhere, the alarms wailing, Dr. West and the nurses holding me down while they bandaged my wrists, and then Brad staring down at me, his face distorted with uncomprehending grief.
I should have done better. The arteries are hidden deep, protected by the bones. The slashes have to be made vertically if you really want it. That’s the right algorithm. There’s a recipe for everything. This time I’ll get it right.
It takes a while, but finally I feel sleepy.
I’m happy. The pain is real.
I open the door to my room and turn on the light.
The light activates Laura, who is sitting on top of my dresser. This one used to be a demo model. She hasn’t been dusted in a while, and her dress looks ragged. Her head turns to follow my movement.
I turn around. Brad’s body is still, but I can see the tears on his face. He was crying on the whole silent ride home from Salem.
The innkeeper’s voice loops around in my head. “Oh, I could tell right away something was wrong. It’s happened here before. She didn’t seem right at breakfast, and then when you came back she looked like she was in another world. When I heard the water running in the pipes for that long I rushed upstairs right away.”
So I was that predictable.
I look at Brad, and I believe that he is in a lot of pain. I believe it with all my heart. But I still don’t feel anything. There’s a gulf between us, a gulf so wide that I can’t feel his pain. Nor he mine.
But my algorithms are still running. I scan for the right thing to say.
“I love you.”
He doesn’t say anything. His shoulders heave, once.
I turn around. My voice echoes through the empty house, bouncing off walls. Laura’s sound receptors, old as they are, pick it up. The signals run through the cascading IF statements. The DO loops twirl and dance while she does a database lookup. The motors whirr. The synthesizer kicks in.
“I love you too,” Laura says.
Rank #2: PseudoPod 646: Home and Hearth
- Author : Angela Slatter
- Narrator : Robin McLeavy
- Host : Alasdair Stuart
- Audio Producer : Chelsea Davis
- Discuss on Forums
“Home and Hearth” was originally published in the Spectral Press Chapbook Series, March 2014 and the story won the Aurealis Award for Best Short Horror Story 2014.
Content Warning:Spoiler Inside
Violence against children, race-based violence, psychological trauma
The episode of Faculty of Horror mentioned in the intro:
Hearth and Home
by Angela Slatter
Caroline held the door open, listening to the keys make that gentle clink-clank as they hung from the lock. He pushed past her and she could smell the peculiar odour he gave off now: puberty and a state institution. As he crossed the threshold, his too-small shoes leaving mud on the new welcome mat (she’d thrown out the one exhorting a universal power to ‘Bless this mess’), the house seemed to sigh.
Then again, maybe it was her, but she couldn’t remember the air leaving her lungs.
Then again it might have been the heating system as it puffed out warmth.
‘Coke?’ she asked, following him down the long hallway. ‘Or hot chocolate? Crisps? Marshmallows? I baked your favourite biscuits. They’re not hot but I can warm them in the microwave. There’s a cake, too. Banana. Or—or—what would you like?’
She knew she was overcompensating, had schooled herself not to during the weeks and months, but he was back in the house not five minutes and already she was failing. She reached out and touched his face.
It was a mistake. The feeling against her palm, the slight sweatiness, the burgeoning pimples beneath the skin, combined to make her shudder. She hoped he didn’t notice.
‘It’s fine, Mum. I’m going to my room.’
Simon hadn’t called her that in months, not since the trial started. Not since Geoffrey had his heart attack and told her as she sat by his hospital bed that he didn’t think he could continue with, well, everything. Turning up at the court every day, dodging and weaving reporters and cameras, listening to their son’s legal reps talk and excuse and obfuscate. It was all lies, he’d said. They both knew it.
She could have the house. And the money.
(It’s mine anyway, she wanted to say, but didn’t. It always was.)
He had to go, he’d said. For his health.
Then she had to tell their son what his father had decided—that he was opting out of the family. Men never like to clean up their own mess, she’d thought at the time as she’d watched a light go out in him. His answers had whittled themselves down to monosyllables. He stopped referring to his father. Stopped calling her ‘Mum’, or indeed anything but ‘her.’
Ask her, he’d say to the barrister. Avoiding her gaze.
Caroline thought her eyes should probably be misty, a little heated with some kind of emotional response, but there was nothing. Oh well. Perhaps it would come later, when they got used to each other once more.
‘Okay,’ she said belatedly. He was already gone, disappeared up the stairs, closing the door. She walked into the sitting room, which was directly beneath his room and listened.
A few steps as he walked from one wall to the next, stopped at the desk, the book shelves, the wardrobe (she heard the creak of its hinges), then to his bed. She’d left his presents on the duvet, neatly stacked—he’d missed his thirteenth birthday in all the chaos. There was the whump as he sat down, then the double thud of his shoes hitting the floor. Then a steady series of noises as each carefully wrapped gift followed the footwear. Finally, silence.
She stood beneath him for a while, then turned to one of the front windows and tweaked back the edge of the long cream-coloured curtains. Through the wrought bars of the fence she couldn’t see anything but cars parked in the street, the houses opposite, each like hers, tidy, fenced, tall, manicured gardens, quietly comfortable. No one. No reporters. No yelling at the house, no trying to get into the yard, no knocking at the door, no flashbulbs blinding Caroline before she learned not to open it for them. In a deep, damned part of her soul she was grateful for the bombings that had made her son old news.
She took a deep breath and headed towards the kitchen.
The frozen foods aisle seemed colder than usual. Or maybe it was the collection of eyes boring into her back that were giving Caroline the chills. She reached into the freezer and pulled out ice cream (vanilla), a chicken (medium), then packets of peas, beans, carrots and chips. They all made a metallic sound as they hit the bottom of the trolley.
She’d left Simon sleeping; a note on the table gave him strict instructions not to leave the house and not to open the door to anyone. But she’d had to go out, had to stock up—two days home and he’d eaten most everything she had. That was what he did now: eat and play computer games in his room. Soon she would have to talk to him about school. He’d have to return to the world, but that was fraught with complications. They would have to move, she thought. A new house, a new town, a new life. Maybe she’d dye his hair, have it cut so he didn’t look like the boy on the news reports. Mind you, if he kept eating this way, it wouldn’t be an issue. Her son would disappear beneath layers of fat and be cleverly camouflaged by his own body.
She couldn’t think about all those details now, so she did what she could, which was to reach out and load up on cheeses, yoghurt, custard and milk. As she turned, fighting the trolley’s recalcitrant wheels, she looked up and saw them. The herd.
Twelve housewives, nearly identical: corduroy trousers in greens and browns, sharply pressed collared shirts under v-neck sweaters in various hues, with barely-worn Barbour jackets and scarves hanging loose around necks that showed signs of wrinkling. Caroline knew them—she’d been one of them herself, once.
It wasn’t hatred, precisely, that they were staring at her, nothing so strong, nothing so moral. It was just a kind of intense distaste: her dirty laundry had been aired very publicly. All the nasty domestic worms had poked their heads out of the shit-stirred soil of her home. They could look down on her … but it was something more. She made them nervous. She’d been a carbon copy—her fall made them feel exposed, vulnerable. There but for the grace of God go I and so on. Caroline’s son had made them afraid of their own children.
Now, people stared at them and associated them with her. Their neat, tidy houses, highly financial husbands, over-achieving children, all held up to scrutiny by the lower orders. Caroline almost smiled; then did. Waved and resisted the urge to walk up to them and chatter inanely about scone recipes or some such. She knew she looked manic, the smile pinned to her lips, eyes fever-bright.
She made her way to the junk food aisle and began to stack brightly packaged carbohydrates and preservatives into the trolley. The more she bought now, she reasoned, the less often she’d have to come back.
At the checkout, the spotty teen ignored her for a while, grabbing items in a podgy hand with chewed nails and chipped pink polish and dragging them over the scanner, then tossing them behind where an equally spotty boy jammed the items into bags. Eggs beneath tins of ham and tomatoes, bread beneath frozen things. When the girl finally looked up to mumble the total, Caroline could almost see the cogs in the brain wake and haltingly turn themselves; could almost hear the grinding. She watched as the blood-shot eyes widened and the lips trembled, the bottom one dropping open like a draw bridge on a slow timer. The girl stammered; she fumbled with Caroline’s credit card; dropped the docket; stared and stared and stared.
The bag boy didn’t look up.
As Caroline packed the food into the back of the Land Rover, she felt as if she was being watched. Expecting one of the mums brigade, she straightened and looked around.
A dishevelled figure stood motionless in the corner of the parking lot. Scuffed boots, thick trousers; bulked up by a couple of men’s coats and a disreputable sweater, the figure removed its bright pink beanie only when it met Caroline’s eyes.
It was the woman. The other mother.
Caroline didn’t—couldn’t—budge. She and the Traveller watched each other forever until the woman shoved her hat back over the dark tangled hair and shuffled off. The spell broken, Caroline could shift again, but her joints ached. It seemed every move she made hurt, every bag she heaved was filled with wet sand.
It was a long time before her hands stopped shaking enough for her put the keys in the ignition. She was dripping with sweat in the cold, cold car.
Simon’s voice in Caroline’s ear and his hands on her shoulder shocked her awake. She’d been dreaming somewhere dark, somewhere the blackness was deathly-thick.
‘Mum!! Wake up!’ He was yelling, her son. She could smell fear on him; it came off his skin in waves, mixed with the scent of adolescence. He stank.
Caroline recoiled, trying not to do so, managing to shuffle herself across the sheets without actually seeming to move. Her head felt full of cement. Only the sheer terror of having Simon’s fingers anywhere near her had the power to shock her awake as surely as an icy bath.
She cursed herself for having taken a sleeping tablet—what was she thinking making herself vulnerable?—but there were so many in the bathroom, hers, Geoffrey’s, all the enthusiastically doled-out tranquilisers the doctor had heaped upon them early in the piece. And she hadn’t slept properly in…
She so needed to sleep.
And now her son had crept into her room and gotten close enough to touch her with hands that had—
‘Mum, there’s someone downstairs.’
‘What’s the time?’ She struggled into a sitting position and squinted at the shining digital face on her bedside table. She could hear someone battering at the front door. It was two a.m. Surely not reporters. Surely not at this hour. Nor the police—double jeopardy and all, and he hadn’t been out of the house since he’d been given back to her. He couldn’t have done anything else, not yet.
Simon’s face was white, his eyes huge. My child is afraid, she thought, admonished. His blond hair stuck up at all angles; coupled with his terrified stare it made him look very, very young.
Caroline felt a deep stab of shame. He needed his mum. She wrapped a thick chenille dressing gown around herself and tied it tight.
She crept along the hallway, past the grandfather clock with its regular rhythmic tick-tock, and down the stairs, Simon behind her, his hands holding onto the train of her gown just like he did when little and she was in the kitchen making his buttery toast. Back when he couldn’t bear to be parted from her.
The door was shuddering and shaking under the force of the blows—she thought she could see periodic slivers of the world outside as the wood warped inwards with each hit. She wondered if the leadlight panels would break, but they seemed to bend and curve like rubber. She opened the hall cupboard and pulled out a cricket bat—Simon’s when he was eight. It wasn’t huge but it was hefty and she’d get in a good swing, by God. Caroline pushed her son away so she could have space. As she took the last two steps forward there was one final slam and the door vibrated on its hinges, then all was still.
She flicked on the porch light, wrenching on the doorhandle and pulling at the same time.
Nothing. A pool of yellow light trickled down into the garden like something spilled, and beyond its reach there was the moonlight, giving everything a strange blue tint. The front yard was empty as was the street beyond and there was nowhere for anyone to hide. There weren’t even any desperate reporters staked out in battered Vauxhalls, snoring or smoking or mainlining bad coffee from the all-night service station fifteen minutes away. The cars sparkled with the night’s frost as if someone had scattered diamond chips over them.
Caroline stepped out, her feet cold. A few more paces and something stuck to the sole of her left foot. She bent down and picked it up, glanced briefly at the piece of faded photographic paper.
‘What is it?’ Simon’s voice quavered from well back in the hallway and she couldn’t help, was devastated by, the wave of contempt that washed over her.
‘Nothing. Just some rubbish.’ She pocketed the photo before she turned and went inside. ‘Hot chocolate?’
He surprised her by nodding, by choosing her company instead of retreating to his cave yet again. Instead of making her feel that she was alone in the house despite his presence.
The kitchen was bright and warm and for a while she could pretend everything was normal.
The ground was hard-frosted and the grass crunched and crackled like broken glass beneath her boots. Far behind her were the house and its rear garden backing onto the common, the drunken fence and the squeaky gate that led out.
White mist hung in front of her face and she struggled to breathe in the cold air. Sweat ran its way down her spine. Caroline chided herself: she hadn’t been to the gym in months; her thighs felt like jelly and she couldn’t even manage a brisk walk without puffing. As she reached the top of the incline, she stopped, trying not to gasp for breath, and surveyed the land below.
A curious combination of painted wagons, battered four-wheel drives and campervans were scattered in a loose configuration someone might mistake for a circle. In what passed for the centre was a fire pit, with smoke still rising from last night’s embers. There was a bustle of activity: the Travellers were preparing to move on. This was probably the longest they’d stayed in any one place, she thought, then tried to unthink the reason why.
She took a deep gulp of icy air that made her lungs burn in protest, and started down the slope.
It took them a while to notice her as they packed up like efficient little ants, but she stood at the edge of their campsite and eventually someone spotted her. Looked closer. Recognised her features. Nudged the person next to them. And so on.
Eventually they all gathered around, so many of them, but kept a few metres between her and them, as if she might be contaminated and this was judged the safe distance. Pinned beneath their collective gaze, Caroline felt thin—no, not just thin, but starving, soul-famished, as if nothing good had ever come from or gone into her.
The men looked at her hard, although some seemed to pity her, but the women … the women judged. They peered at her as if they knew what she suspected, that somehow her son’s rot had started with her, begun in the womb and come to fruition months and months ago. She felt as if she were a specimen, an experiment that had gone horribly, openly wrong. Just when she thought she couldn’t take anymore and was about to turn tail and run, the crowd parted, split by a knife of a woman.
Caroline opened her mouth but no words came. Instead she stood there for the longest time, lips parted, tongue wetly visible but mute. Then the other nodded and turned, gliding through the press of bodies. Caroline followed and the Travellers shifted, maintaining the safe corridor as she passed between them.
Without the layers of clothes, she was tall and thin. Her hair, pulled into a black plait, hung down below the waist of a long green skirt. As she walked, Caroline could hear bells and she remembered from all the days of the trial that the Traveller was weighted down with jewellery: bracelets, earrings, necklaces, anklets; her fingers were swollen with rings, silver, gold, with stones of every colour. She led Caroline to one of the painted wagons, up the wooden steps of faded red and into a warm, dark, musty space. The door closed behind them without either of them drawing it shut.
The space stretched forward but seemed smaller than it should have, a dim tunnel stuffed with boxes and books and stray items of clothing. The built-in bed was piled high with blankets and newspapers. An unlikely chaise longue took up space, lying on an angle as uncomfortable as a lizard in a too-small container. The walls were hung with paintings and tapestries, some things that looked like pages from illuminated manuscripts, pendants, misplaced wind-chimes, strands of crystals, strings of dried garlic and flowers and, in one instance, what looked like animal paws.
Caroline glanced away.
A pot of tea sat in the centre of a small table, neatly placed within the edges of an embroidered circle of birds and horses. Two cups. Like the teapot they were once fine porcelain, now crackle-glazed, their floral pattern faded. Caroline thought her grandmother might have had the same set once upon a time. Her hostess sat and waved that she should do the same. Caroline hoped the woman—her name was Aishe, Caroline reminded herself—would speak first but she knew it was her place to do so. She, Caroline, even if not the sinner, bore the sins of her child.
Finding her throat closed, she put a hand in her coat pocket and pulled out the photo, laying it on the cloth between them.
Aishe ignored it, instead pouring tea. The liquorice aroma was strong, the liquid deepest black. Only when she had pushed the cup across the cloth to Caroline’s side of the table did the woman let her eyes stray to the small, sad square of paper.
A little boy smiled up at them. He had black eyes and coal-scuttle curls; his skin was olive and he wore a patched red sweater, worn cord trousers too large for him and boots. He held the reins of a shaggy-looking pony and his joy was like a bolt of sunshine. Aishe’s hand hovered over the snapshot, one finger lowered tantalisingly close to the boy’s face, but at the last minute not touching it. She sat back, resigned, weary, and looked expectantly at her guest. Still she did not speak.
Caroline, never good with silence, scootched forward. She pushed the edges of the photo with the tips of her nails, as if to draw the woman’s attention to it—to make her consider it more seriously.
‘Yours,’ she pushed out of her mouth. ‘This is yours.’
Aishe shook her head, lids dropping heavily.
‘Yes, it’s your son.’ Caroline’s tone was sharp, a touch of desperation, a need to convince the other of what she was saying.
‘No.’ The word, when it rumbled out, showcased how deep her voice was. Caroline sat back; she couldn’t recall ever hearing her speak, not during the whole of the trial. But surely … surely she must have. The no-longer-mother had given evidence, hadn’t she?
‘No?’ she asked.
‘No,’ repeated Aishe. ‘Not mine. Not anymore.’
Caroline shook her head. ‘I’m sorry. I’m sorry for what happened. I’m sorry for your son, but this photograph is yours. Please, please don’t bother us again.’
‘Drink. It will help.’
Against her will, Caroline did, sipping at the black brew.
‘Your son,’ said Aishe, ‘has something inside him. Something wrong.’
‘You think he’s possessed?’ Caroline scoffed. She’d been brought up in a home where religion was politely ignored except at Easter and Christmas, and she’d raised Simon the same way. Geoffrey was an atheist.
‘So are all who do such things. The thing inside makes them so.’ Aishe wrapped her hands around her own cup, ignoring its handle and drinking deeply.
‘So … so you say it’s not Simon’s fault?’ As Caroline wondered at this offer of absolution, the other woman laughed.
‘We still have a choice—free will. We always have the power to say yes or no. Your son has something inside him, yes; but he chose to give in to it.’
Caroline felt the words like a slap. She put the teacup down, her shaking hands clattered it on the saucer. She stood.
‘I am sorry. Sorry about your son.’ She made her way to the door, fumbled with the handle until it gave and let the cold sunlight in. She had her feet on the top step before she heard Aishe’s last words.
‘He’s not mine anymore.’
Caroline stumbled but kept her balance. She tried to leave the rapidly shrinking laager with dignity, but the weight of eyes returning to her and the ringing of the woman’s voice in her ears was a goad. In the end she ran. Ran out of the camp, up the hill and then started down the other side, losing her footing and slipping and sliding on her arse to the bottom. She was up again in a second, running with a limp this time, tears freezing on her cheeks as she hurried towards the rickety gate and the drunken fence and what seemed like safety only in the vaguest of ways.
She’d made it to the entry to the back garden but found she couldn’t go in. Found her hand wouldn’t move to push the gate open, that her feet refused to turn. So, she’d kept going, wandered a while, tried to lose herself in the woods. Stumbling through a stream that sluggishly dribbled along its wintery path, she’d fallen, torn the left knee of her trousers and the skin beneath. Eventually, she’d come out near the local shop and made her limping way home until her front door loomed large. Just as she pushed the wrought iron front gate (unlike the back gate the one in the front yard was respectable—it could be seen), that voice called softly from a car she hadn’t recognised.
‘Hello, Caroline,’ he said again as he unfolded himself from the driver’s seat.
Geoffrey was still tall, but he’d become very thin. And not been-to-the-gym-got-himself-in-shape-thin either. Skeletal thin; not eating thin; heartsick thin and it was almost enough to give her a little thrill of pleasure, to see he was still suffering.
‘What the hell do you want?’ She felt suddenly focused. The pain in her knee, which had been dull at best, burst into vibrant throbbing life. Anger flowed through her veins like molten silver. She was very much alert, alive and she owed it all to the rage Geoffrey conjured in her.
He seemed to realise it and his steps faltered. ‘I … I came to see you. And Simon.’
‘I’m surprised you haven’t let yourself in, made yourself at home,’ she snarled, gloved hands clutching at the gate.
‘You took my key away.’
She’d forgotten that. It had been the same day she’d taken his name off the joint accounts, and cut up his credit card. The same day she’d watched him stuff as many clothes as he could into a big bag on wheels and listened to it thump down the stairs. The same day he’d come home from the hospital and spent a grand total of forty-five minutes packing up the bits of his fifteen year marriage he wanted to keep. He took no photos, no keepsakes; just his thirty-two pairs of argyle socks and his collection of cotton boxers, his jeans, sneakers and sweaters and polo shirts. He’d left his suits and his business shirts and the three pairs of leather shoes, which had given off a stench when Caroline burned them all in the back yard later that afternoon, watching the flames flare and glare and crackle and burst.
Now he was back with a ‘Hello, Caroline’ as if they were meeting for coffee.
‘And anyway, I knocked. I knocked a lot. I could hear music and someone moving around inside— is it Simon? It must be Simon—I kept up with the coverage, so I know he’s home—but no one answered the door. So I thought I’d wait.’
‘Simon doesn’t answer the door. He doesn’t go out anymore, Geoffrey,’ she said in a tone that told him these were important things to know. ‘Our son doesn’t have a life anymore.’
She bit her tongue and stopped herself from adding: We don’t have a son anymore.
‘I thought … I thought I’d like to see him.’
‘You thought? You thought?’ Her voice began to rise. Soon only dogs will be able to hear me. She had to bite down on the giggles that threatened. ‘When did you start thinking, Geoffrey, about anyone but yourself?’
‘Caroline, I’m sorry— I know I did the wrong thing. It was just so hard—‘
‘Yes, it fucking was! It was very fucking hard— for me! You just gave up. You just left, you shit!’
‘Now there’s no need for that sort of language…’
‘You fuck! Fuck you! You leave me to clean up this mess and you’re telling me to mind my language? What!? Do you think I’ll be a bad influence on Simon?’ She let the gate go and turned to fully face him, taking deliberate steps towards him as he backed away.
He paled and she knew he was terrified of her, of this strange new woman who was walking about in her skin. She wondered what he saw in her that made him know she was something different now. She idly wondered if it was the same thing that showed in Simon’s face when he—
‘I’m sorry, Caroline, this was a bad idea.’ She could barely hear him over the sound his keys made as he tried to get them into the car door. She noticed that his vehicle was old, no central locking, no blipping noises from electronic entry—no heated seats either, she imagined. A far cry from the Merc he’d driven away in. She wondered what had happened to it, but guessed that if he was trying to visit, he was trying to come back to the comfort of her money. Caroline smiled at him.
He got the door open and put it between them as if it might keep him safe. But he didn’t get into the car, he seemed to be about to say something else, and that was his mistake.
Caroline gathered herself, drew upon all the saliva she could muster and spat in his face. Pity it’s not acid, she thought, but for his expression it may as well have been. It dripped from the tip of his sharp nose, and slid lazily down his left cheek.
‘Don’t come back, Geoffrey.’
Simon dropped the item in question, startled by his mother’s sudden appearance. Caroline caught sight of herself in the mirror above his desk. She looked wild, angry and sick. She stalked into the room. He hunched down and swept the thing up, trying to hide it.
‘Nothing,’ he grunted. It was the same tone he had used for the last year and she’d thought herself inured to it, but this time she snapped. She swooped on him, shrieking, pushing her face into his until he was almost flat on his mattress as she screamed.
Whatisit, whatisit, whatisit, whatisit?
He threw it on the floor and she stepped back, his movement breaking her tirade. It was a knife. A pocket knife. The one Geoffrey had given him the Christmas before in spite of her objections. The one the police had been unable to find. The one that still had thin brown stains where the blade met the casing.
Time seemed to freeze around them as they stared down at the thing on the blue carpet.
Caroline had steadfastly lied for her son. Yes, he was home that afternoon. No, he had not left his room. They’d had hot chocolate at precisely three o’clock and they had watched cartoons together. No amount of nitpicking or white-anting by the Prosecution had shifted or shaken her, and she’d taken a kind of perverse pride in that.
In truth, Caroline didn’t really know why she’d lied.
To protect her child, yes, but she didn’t understand why she did it when she knew deep down he was guilty. She’d had hope, of course, all mothers have hope beyond hope, a deep abiding belief that a miracle will occur and their child will be proven innocent—because when the guilt is beyond doubt, is known, the world changes irrevocably.
And here it was. Undeniable proof of what he’d done.
Caroline felt something somewhere in her chest give way, cave in and leave a pile of rubble in its wake. Inside, an already hobbling part of her died.
But it didn’t matter. They couldn’t charge him again, couldn’t re-try him. He was out and he’d got away with it. And he was in her house. He’d come out of her. Whatever was in him had come from her.
Slowly she bent down, the cut in her knee reopening, and picked up the knife. Her knuckles turned bone-white around it and she could feel the metal cutting. She squeezed her hand tighter, felt satisfied as the blade cut further and blood began to pool in her palm, then drip out between her fingers. In the cup of her hand, the new blood liquefied the old, mixed with it.
Caroline lifted her fist and shook it at Simon. Red spattered across his shirt, face and the blue duvet. Behind his eyes she saw something stir; something that wasn’t afraid of her. Not yet.
She moved towards him and the thing inside him began to shift, to squirm. Ah! At last.
Then the window shattered, showering them both with glass, and the spell was broken. Time stumbled forward again. She became aware of the clock in the upstairs hallway, ticking and tocking, reliable as ever. On the bed lay half a brick. Tied to it with a piece of twine was a familiar crumpled square of off-white.
Simon didn’t even twitch, still paralysed. Still frozen. Only his eyes swept around, as if looking for escape. Caroline collected the brick, and untied the twine. Resignedly, she pulled the photo away from the rough surface of the concrete carrier pigeon and put it into the pocket of her Barbour. She felt the blood from her hand oozing across the surface smoothly melting away the emulsion. Caroline straightened, cleared her throat.
‘Lunch in ten minutes. If you want food you’ll come downstairs like a human being. No more skulking up here. I’m not a zookeeper to keep bringing meals to your door.’
She turned to leave.
‘It wasn’t anyone important!’
His voice, his words, made her nauseous. She felt hot waves of sick rising, lapping at the back of her throat. She swallowed it down. He wouldn’t see—couldn’t see—any weakness. Caroline kept moving, towards the door, was almost into the hallway.
‘Just a filthy little Rom. Filthy Traveller. Who’d miss him? Mum? Who’d miss him?’
She locked the door of her bedroom that night; thought about pushing a set of drawers in front of it, then decided she was being silly. The rage-invigorated woman who had so scared her husband and son seemed to have disappeared. She couldn’t, she supposed, burn that brightly for too long. She went to sleep quickly, though, as if all her energy had evaporated. She didn’t even take a tablet.
Something woke her in the dark watches.
At first she thought it was Simon and cried out, then remembered he couldn’t get in. Anyway, what woke her was a weeping, a whimpering Simon had never made, not even when he was small.
Her heart clenched when she saw the figure standing solidly black silhouetted on the pale curtains, back-lit by the streetlights.
But she realised the shape, the shadow, was too small.
Caroline sat up slowly and squinted hard into the dimness. Slowly details made themselves known: a patched red sweater, coal-scuttle curls, the dirty marks on his face cut by lines of clean where tears had fallen. She didn’t turn on the bedside lamp for fear he would disappear. She didn’t speak for the same reason.
She offered her hand and held her breath.
He settled beside her under the sheets, beneath the blankets, snuggling into the curve of her as if he belonged there. His skin was so cold she shivered. But she welcomed the sensation—any sensation, any feeling at all that was not despair or contempt or fear or hatred or grief.
The thin little back pressed against her stomach; the little knuckles of the spine stood out and she ran her fingers down them, almost expecting the sound of a xylophone. And he stopped crying. She brushed a hand across his face, felt the still-wet tears and put her fingers to her tongue. They burned, salt and ice, stung her mouth like lemon juice poured into a wound, but she didn’t care.
‘Mum?’ Simon was scratching at the door. ‘Mum, are you okay?’ he paused. ‘It’s just I thought I heard you yell…’
The child beside her stilled like a small animal trying to escape notice and then she smelled ammonia. She gathered her breath, kept her voice steady and said, ‘Yes, I’m fine. A dream is all. Go back to bed.’
She listened as his heavy footsteps receded and his bedroom door closed. She could feel the little boy relaxing.
‘It’s all right,’ she whispered. ‘It’s all right.’
Ignoring the wet stink, the warm damp that was rapidly turning cold, Caroline wrapped her arms around the child and slept soundly.
‘I want to go outside,’ Simon mumbled through his food.
He wasn’t using a knife—she hadn’t put one out—and hacked away great chunks of French toast with the edge of his fork, then shovelled each one loaded with disks of banana into his mouth. Syrup dripped down his chin.
Caroline turned back to the stove and deftly flipped over another piece of bread dipped in egg mix. It sizzled as it hit the pan and the smell of heated butter filled her nostrils. She nodded, as if buying herself a few moments. In truth she felt guilty, guiltier than at any other time in her life. She told herself it was because she’d been a bad mother, because she’d feared him, and because of that fear she’d hated him. But it was worse and she knew it.
She hadn’t simply hated him. She’d forgotten him. For the briefest of hours she had forgotten him altogether and she had loved another child. Another child who was everything Simon no longer was: vulnerable, innocent. A child who’d filled her need for such a short time. But had done so nevertheless, and in doing so had widened the fractures between Caroline and her son.
So she nodded again and said, ‘Where would you like to go?’
‘The park? Just out, Mum. Just… out.’
‘The park it is, when I finish the dishes. Wrap up, it’s cold.’
She could feel, tight by her left leg, the cold weight of the ghost child leaning on her. The small frozen hands gripped her mid-thigh, hampering any movement, but she didn’t shift; didn’t want to dislodge him, just stayed in place revelling in the sensation of being essential.
When Simon finished jamming breakfast into his maw and brought his plate over to the sink, she felt the ghost child dissolve, his presence melt away, leaving only his fear of Simon and a disturbing sense of resentment in Caroline’s chest.
It was okay, she thought. It was going to be okay.
The bench was warm beneath her; an unseasonal burst of sun had burned away the chill and the damp and she was toasty in a bubble of light, hidden from the wind by a stand of trees and the toilet block not far behind her. She snuggled down in her coat and closed her eyes for a moment.
The park had been a good idea. Stiff and formal at first, they’d eventually relaxed. Simon had scraped together a tiny, wet ball from remnants of snow (but mostly mud) and thrown it at her. The mark was still visible on her coat; any other time she would have lost her temper, seen it as mean, but there was a kind of relief in seeing him behave like a child for the first time in what seemed an age.
It made her remember how it had been when he was small. When loving him wasn’t something she thought about, wasn’t something she resented, but something she simply did; something she did not question. So she laughed and made snow-mud pies of her own and threw them until they were both breathless with laughter and covered with cold, dripping brown.
When she sat to catch her breath, Simon played on the swings. The park started to fill up with other children but he didn’t seem to notice them. More importantly, they didn’t appear to notice him. The few parents standing around smoking and watching their own offspring didn’t recognise her son either. He took to the slides, then the roundabout, climbed the tree fort, then told her he needed to go to the loo.
She’d smiled and nodded, touched his arm and squeezed to let him know it was going to be okay.
Now she sat, warm and drowsing, as close to happy as she’d been in … she didn’t know. They would move, yes. Up north, somewhere with a small school, but close enough to a city with good psychologists; Simon would need help. He would need someone to talk to—as she would, let’s face it—someone who could get him to speak about what made him do what he did. Someone who could make him face what he had done, look at it and see it for what it was, and then turn away in disgust—aversion therapy, she thought. He would realise that his choices in future must always turn away from whatever the voice inside him advised. He would recognise his action had been an aberration. He’d acted on a whim, a curiosity. It was hideous, terrible, but he had to be allowed to move on. If he didn’t, her son would be tied to that awful, awful thing forever.
And so would she.
But they could get past it.
They could work together.
Everything would be okay.
The hand was small and frigid on her face. At first she thought it was Simon, but the hand was too small. Too tender. The touch was sad, tentative, but somehow determined. She moaned no, but it didn’t help. Caroline didn’t want to, but the tiny fingers brushed across her lids, made her blink, let the smallest sliver of daylight in and she had to come back to the world.
When she opened her eyes, the ghost child was a few feet away. He wasn’t looking at her, but staring towards the toilet block. She felt as heavy as she ever had, cemented to the wooden bench, but she heaved herself upwards. Every step was leaden, and she couldn’t make herself run. Her legs operated independently of her will and resolutely brought her to the entrance to the male toilets.
The smell of urine assailed her. The floor was tiled and damp. She rounded the corner and peered into the dim-lit rectangular room.
Stalls to the right. A urinal against the far wall. A row of sinks to the left. And in the far corner, her son just visible in the doorway of the furthest stall. Caroline approached quietly, oh so quietly. Behind her she could feel the arctic presence of the ghost child, his little hands holding onto the bottom of her coat. In the moment before Simon sensed her and turned around, she saw into the stall.
An elfin girl this time.
Caroline felt her heart stop, leap, thud like a drum.
The child’s face was pinched and pale but she seemed otherwise unhurt. She was crouched on top of the closed lid of the toilet, curled in on herself like a terrified hedgehog. She looked clean and cared for in jeans with sequins along the line of the pockets, a pink, puffed jacket, and purple gumboots decorated with flower-shaped raindrops and umbrellas held by black and white cows. Not a Traveller’s child this time, not a child Simon might think no one would care about. Caroline couldn’t help the flare of irritation that after everything that had happened he could be so stupid.
The little girl caught sight of Caroline and her mouth opened in a wail of relief and fear.
That was when Simon turned, his eyes widening, pupils dilating, his mouth working like a fish trying to gather breath on land.
‘I wasn’t! I wasn’t doing anything!’ He cowered. ‘I wasn’t going to…’
Caroline had thought her son’s lies had no more power to hurt her. The moment her hand grasped the collar of his jacket and began to shake him, the girl used the chance to dart out, haring through the tight space between their bodies and the stall door. She let loose a steam train squeal as she passed them by.
Caroline had enough presence of mind to drag him outside and to the car before the shouting started, her own and that of the outraged parents gathering around the little girl who’d made her way to the far side of the park with amazing speed.
In her bathroom, everything was arrayed tidily, in the order she needed.
They had to be ground down, she decided; one simply couldn’t swallow so many any other way. Caroline had taken the boxes from the medicine cabinet, popped the pills out of the blister packs, each one making a satisfying metallic crackle as they broke through the silvery packaging. She’d brought the small mortar and pestle up from the kitchen, the one she kept for dry ingredients, and stood it on the white marble of the vanity unit. She dropped the tablets in, absently counting them as if it mattered, then began the painstaking process of turning them into dust.
In the end, the small mound of white powder wasn’t enough. Or perhaps it was, but she didn’t really believe it. She wanted to be certain; didn’t want to leave anything to chance. Next came the bottles—so many bottles!—the pills larger, harder to crush, but she managed it. She could do it. She could do anything, as long as she concentrated on one task at a time. Behind her, cold radiated, a frigid comfort.
Then the stairs, one at a time, carefully cupping the mortar with both hands. Easy. Down was easiest. One thing at a time.
In the kitchen, she poured milk into a saucepan and put it on the stove, the click of the lighter making her flinch until the gas caught with a blue sigh. From the pantry, the canister and the sugar bowl. From the cupboard over the sink, a mug, the biggest, his favourite.
The powders, the mixing of white and brown, until no one could tell the difference; the sound of the milk as it heated, simmered, threatened to boil over.
And finally, she stood at the bottom of the stairs, took a breath, kept her voice steady and called upwards.
Rank #3: PseudoPod 645: HORROR COMEDY SHOWCASE: The Undertakers
- Author : Rudyard Kipling
- Narrator : Wilson Fowlie
- Host : Alasdair Stuart
- Audio Producer : Marty Perrett
- Discuss on Forums
“The Undertakers” was first published in The Second Jungle Book in 1895
Dream Foundry is a new organization helping all professionals, especially beginners, working in the speculative arts. Back their Kickstarter to make sure they last and grow, and to get yourself some nifty rewards.
by Rudyard Kipling
When ye say to Tabaqui, “My Brother!”
when ye call the Hyena to meat,
Ye may cry the Full Truce with Jacala–
the Belly that runs on four feet.
“Respect the aged!”
It was a thick voice–a muddy voice that would have made you shudder–a voice like something soft breaking in two. There was a quaver in it, a croak and a whine.
“Respect the aged! O Companions of the River–respect the aged!”
Nothing could be seen on the broad reach of the river except a little fleet of square-sailed, wooden-pinned barges, loaded with building-stone, that had just come under the railway bridge, and were driving down-stream. They put their clumsy helms over to avoid the sand-bar made by the scour of the bridge-piers, and as they passed, three abreast, the horrible voice began again:
“O Brahmins of the River–respect the aged and infirm!”
A boatman turned where he sat on the gunwale, lifted up his hand, said something that was not a blessing, and the boats creaked on through the twilight. The broad Indian river, that looked more like a chain of little lakes than a stream, was as smooth as glass, reflecting the sandy-red sky in mid-channel, but splashed with patches of yellow and dusky purple near and under the low banks. Little creeks ran into the river in the wet season, but now their dry mouths hung clear above water-line. On the left shore, and almost under the railway bridge, stood a mud-and-brick and thatch-and-stick village, whose main street, full of cattle going back to their byres, ran straight to the river, and ended in a sort of rude brick pier-head, where people who wanted to wash could wade in step by step. That was the Ghaut of the village of Mugger-Ghaut.
Night was falling fast over the fields of lentils and rice and cotton in the low-lying ground yearly flooded by the river; over the reeds that fringed the elbow of the bend, and the tangled jungle of the grazing-grounds behind the still reeds. The parrots and crows, who had been chattering and shouting over their evening drink, had flown inland to roost, crossing the outgoing battalions of the flying-foxes; and cloud upon cloud of water-birds came whistling and ”honking” to the cover of the reed-beds. There were geese, barrel-headed and black-backed, teal, widgeon, mallard, and sheldrake, with curlews, and here and there a flamingo.
A lumbering Adjutant-crane brought up the rear, flying as though each slow stroke would be his last.
“Respect the aged! Brahmins of the River–respect the aged!”
The Adjutant half turned his head, sheered a little in the direction of the voice, and landed stiffly on the sand-bar below the bridge. Then you saw what a ruffianly brute he really was. His back view was immensely respectable, for he stood nearly six feet high, and looked rather like a very proper bald-headed parson. In front it was different, for his Ally Sloper-like head and neck had not a feather to them, and there was a horrible raw-skin pouch on his neck under his chin–a hold-all for the things his pick-axe beak might steal. His legs were long and thin and skinny, but he moved them delicately, and looked at them with pride as he preened down his ashy-gray tail-feathers, glanced over the smooth of his shoulder, and stiffened into “Stand at attention”.
A mangy little Jackal, who had been yapping hungrily on a low bluff, cocked up his ears and tail, and scuttered across the shallows to join the Adjutant.
He was the lowest of his caste–not that the best of jackals are good for much, but this one was peculiarly low, being half a beggar, half a criminal–a cleaner-up of village rubbish-heaps, desperately timid or wildly bold, everlastingly hungry, and full of cunning that never did him any good.
“Ugh!” he said, shaking himself dolefully as he landed. “May the red mange destroy the dogs of this village! I have three bites for each flea upon me, and all because I looked–only looked, mark you–at an old shoe in a cow-byre. Can I eat mud?” He scratched himself under his left ear.
“I heard,” said the Adjutant, in a voice like a blunt saw going through a thick board–“I heard there was a new-born puppy in that same shoe.”
“To hear is one thing; to know is another,” said the Jackal, who had a very fair knowledge of proverbs, picked up by listening to men round the village fires of an evening.
“Quite true. So, to make sure, I took care of that puppy while the dogs were busy elsewhere.”
“They were very busy,” said the Jackal. “Well, I must not go to the village hunting for scraps yet awhile. And so there truly was a blind puppy in that shoe?”
“It is here,” said the Adjutant, squinting over his beak at his full pouch. “A small thing, but acceptable now that charity is dead in the world.”
“Ahai! The world is iron in these days,” wailed the Jackal. Then his restless eye caught the least possible ripple on the water, and he went on quickly: “Life is hard for us all, and I doubt not that even our excellent master, the Pride of the Ghaut and the Envy of the River–”
“A liar, a flatterer, and a Jackal were all hatched out of the same egg,” said the Adjutant to nobody in particular; for he was rather a fine sort of a liar on his own account when he took the trouble.
“Yes, the Envy of the River,” the Jackal repeated, raising his voice. “Even he, I doubt not, finds that since the bridge has been built good food is more scarce. But on the other hand, though I would by no means say this to his noble face, he is so wise and so virtuous–as I, alas! am not–”
“When the Jackal owns he is gray, how black must the Jackal be!” muttered the Adjutant. He could not see what was coming.
“That his food never fails, and in consequence–”
There was a soft grating sound, as though a boat had just touched in shoal water. The Jackal spun round quickly and faced (it is always best to face) the creature he had been talking about. It was a twenty-four-foot crocodile, cased in what looked like treble-riveted boiler-plate, studded and keeled and crested; the yellow points of his upper teeth just overhanging his beautifully fluted lower jaw. It was the blunt-nosed Mugger of Mugger-Ghaut, older than any man in the village, who had given his name to the village; the demon of the ford before the railway bridge, came–murderer, man-eater, and local fetish in one. He lay with his chin in the shallows, keeping his place by an almost invisible rippling of his tail, and well the Jackal knew that one stroke of that same tail in the water would carry the Mugger up the bank with the rush of a steam-engine.
“Auspiciously met, Protector of the Poor!” he fawned, backing at every word. “A delectable voice was heard, and we came in the hopes of sweet conversation. My tailless presumption, while waiting here, led me, indeed, to speak of thee. It is my hope that nothing was overheard.”
Now the Jackal had spoken just to be listened to, for he knew flattery was the best way of getting things to eat, and the Mugger knew that the Jackal had spoken for this end, and the Jackal knew that the Mugger knew, and the Mugger knew that the Jackal knew that the Mugger knew, and so they were all very contented together.
The old brute pushed and panted and grunted up the bank, mumbling, “Respect the aged and infirm!” and all the time his little eyes burned like coals under the heavy, horny eyelids on the top of his triangular head, as he shoved his bloated barrel-body along between his crutched legs. Then he settled down, and, accustomed as the Jackal was to his ways, he could not help starting, for the hundredth time, when he saw how exactly the Mugger imitated a log adrift on the bar. He had even taken pains to lie at the exact angle a naturally stranded log would make with the water, having regard to the current of the season at the time and place. All this was only a matter of habit, of course, because the Mugger had come ashore for pleasure; but a crocodile is never quite full, and if the Jackal had been deceived by the likeness he would not have lived to philosophise over it.
“My child, I heard nothing,” said the Mugger, shutting one eye. “The water was in my ears, and also I was faint with hunger. Since the railway bridge was built my people at my village have ceased to love me; and that is breaking my heart.”
“Ah, shame!” said the Jackal. “So noble a heart, too! But men are all alike, to my mind.”
“Nay, there are very great differences indeed,” the Mugger answered gently. “Some are as lean as boat-poles. Others again are fat as young ja–dogs. Never would I causelessly revile men. They are of all fashions, but the long years have shown me that, one with another, they are very good. Men, women, and children–I have no fault to find with them. And remember, child, he who rebukes the World is rebuked by the World.”
“Flattery is worse than an empty tin can in the belly. But that which we have just heard is wisdom,” said the Adjutant, bringing down one foot.
“Consider, though, their ingratitude to this excellent one,” began the Jackal tenderly.
“Nay, nay, not ingratitude!” the Mugger said. “They do not think for others; that is all. But I have noticed, lying at my station below the ford, that the stairs of the new bridge are cruelly hard to climb, both for old people and young children. The old, indeed, are not so worthy of consideration, but I am grieved–I am truly grieved–on account of the fat children. Still, I think, in a little while, when the newness of the bridge has worn away, we shall see my people’s bare brown legs bravely splashing through the ford as before. Then the old Mugger will be honoured again.”
“But surely I saw Marigold wreaths floating off the edge of the Ghaut only this noon,” said the Adjutant.
Marigold wreaths are a sign of reverence all India over.
“An error–an error. It was the wife of the sweetmeat-seller. She loses her eyesight year by year, and cannot tell a log from me–the Mugger of the Ghaut. I saw the mistake when she threw the garland, for I was lying at the very foot of the Ghaut, and had she taken another step I might have shown her some little difference. Yet she meant well, and we must consider the spirit of the offering.”
“What good are marigold wreaths when one is on the rubbish-heap?” said the Jackal, hunting for fleas, but keeping one wary eye on his Protector of the Poor.
“True, but they have not yet begun to make the rubbish-heap that shall carry me. Five times have I seen the river draw back from the village and make new land at the foot of the street. Five times have I seen the village rebuilt on the banks, and I shall see it built yet five times more. I am no faithless, fish-hunting Gavial, I, at Kasi today and Prayag tomorrow, as the saying is, but the true and constant watcher of the ford. It is not for nothing, child, that the village bears my name, and ‘he who watches long,’ as the saying is, ‘shall at last have his reward.’ ”
“I have watched long–very long–nearly all my life, and my reward has been bites and blows,” said the Jackal.
“Ho! ho! ho!” roared the Adjutant.
“In August was the Jackal born;
The Rains fell in September;
‘Now such a fearful flood as this,’
Says he, ‘I can’t remember!’ ”
There is one very unpleasant peculiarity about the Adjutant. At uncertain times he suffers from acute attacks of the fidgets or cramp in his legs, and though he is more virtuous to behold than any of the cranes, who are all immensely respectable, he flies off into wild, cripple-stilt war-dances, half opening his wings and bobbing his bald head up and down; while for reasons best known to himself he is very careful to time his worst attacks with his nastiest remarks. At the last word ofhis song he came to attention again, ten times adjutanter than before.
The Jackal winced, though he was full three seasons old, but you cannot resent an insult from a person with a beak a yard long, and the power of driving it like a javelin. The Adjutant was a most notorious coward, but the Jackal was worse.
“We must live before we can learn,” said the Mugger, “and there is this to say: Little jackals are very common, child, but such a mugger as I am is not common. For all that, I am not proud, since pride is destruction; but take notice, it is Fate, and against his Fate no one who swims or walks or runs should say anything at all. I am well contented with Fate. With good luck, a keen eye, and the custom of considering whether a creek or a backwater has an outlet to it ere you ascend, much may be done.”
“Once I heard that even the Protector of the Poor made a mistake,” said the Jackal viciously.
“True; but there my Fate helped me. It was before I had come to my full growth–before the last famine but three (by the Right and Left of Gunga, how full used the streams to be in those days!). Yes, I was young and unthinking, and when the flood came, who so pleased as I? A little made me very happy then. The village was deep in flood, and I swam above the Ghaut and went far inland, up to the rice-fields, and they were deep in good mud. I remember also a pair of bracelets (glass they were, and troubled me not a little) that I found that evening. Yes, glass bracelets; and, if my memory serves me well, a shoe. I should have shaken off both shoes, but I was hungry. I learned better later. Yes. And so I fed and rested me; but when I was ready to go to the river again the flood had fallen, and I walked through the mud of the main street. Who but I? Came out all my people, priests and women and children, and I looked upon them with benevolence. The mud is not a good place to fight in. Said a boatman, ‘Get axes and kill him, for he is the Mugger of the ford.’ ‘Not so,’ said the Brahmin. ‘Look, he is driving the flood before him! He is the godling of the village.’ Then they threw many flowers at me, and by happy thought one led a goat across the road.”
“How good–how very good is goat!” said the Jackal.
“Hairy–too hairy, and when found in the water more than likely to hide a cross-shaped hook. But that goat I accepted, and went down to the Ghaut in great honour. Later, my Fate sent me the boatman who had desired to cut off my tail with an axe. His boat grounded upon an old shoal which you would not remember.”
“We are not all jackals here,” said the Adjutant. “Was it the shoal made where the stone-boats sank in the year of the great drouth–a long shoal that lasted three floods?”
“There were two,” said the Mugger; “an upper and a lower shoal.”
“Ay, I forgot. A channel divided them, and later dried up again,” said the Adjutant, who prided himself on his memory.
“On the lower shoal my well-wisher’s craft grounded. He was sleeping in the bows, and, half awake, leaped over to his waist–no, it was no more than to his knees–to push off. His empty boat went on and touched again below the next reach, as the river ran then. I followed, because I knew men would come out to drag it ashore.”
“And did they do so?” said the Jackal, a little awe-stricken. This was hunting on a scale that impressed him.
“There and lower down they did. I went no farther, but that gave me three in one day–well-fed manjis (boatmen) all, and, except in the case of the last (then I was careless), never a cry to warn those on the bank.”
“Ah, noble sport! But what cleverness and great judgment it requires!” said the Jackal.
“Not cleverness, child, but only thought. A little thought in life is like salt upon rice, as the boatmen say, and I have thought deeply always. The Gavial, my cousin, the fish-eater, has told me how hard it is for him to follow his fish, and how one fish differs from the other, and how he must know them all, both together and apart. I say that is wisdom; but, on the other hand, my cousin, the Gavial, lives among his people. My people do not swim in companies, with their mouths out of the water, as Rewa does; nor do they constantly rise to the surface of the water, and turn over on their sides, like Mohoo and little Chapta; nor do they gather in shoals after flood, like Batchua nd Chilwa.”
“All are very good eating,” said the Adjutant, clattering his beak.
“So my cousin says, and makes a great to-do over hunting them, but they do not climb the banks to escape his sharp nose. My people are otherwise. Their life is on the land, in the houses, among the cattle. I must know what they do, and what they are about to do; and adding the tail to the trunk, as the saying is, I make up the whole elephant. Is there a green branch and an iron ring hanging over a doorway? The old Mugger knows that a boy has been born in that house, and must some day come down to the Ghaut to play. Is a maiden to be married? The old Mugger knows, for he sees the men carry gifts back and forth; and she, too, comes down to the Ghaut to bathe before her wedding, and–he is there. Has the river changed its channel, and made new land where there was only sand before? The Mugger knows.”
“Now, of what use is that knowledge?” said the Jackal. “The river has shifted even in my little life.” Indian rivers are nearly always moving about in their beds, and will shift, sometimes, as much as two or three miles in a season, drowning the fields on one bank, and spreading good silt on the other.
“There is no knowledge so useful,” said the Mugger, “for new land means new quarrels. The Mugger knows. Oho! the Mugger knows. As soon as the water has drained off, he creeps up the little creeks that men think would not hide a dog, and there he waits. Presently comes a farmer saying he will plant cucumbers here, and melons there, in the new land that the river has given him. He feels the good mud with his bare toes. Anon comes another, saying he will put onions, and carrots, and sugar-cane in such and such places. They meet as boats adrift meet, and each rolls his eye at the other under the big blue turban. The old Mugger sees and hears. Each calls the other ‘Brother,“ and they go to mark out the boundaries of the new land. The Mugger hurries with them from point to point, shuffling very low through the mud. Now they begin to quarrel! Now they say hot words! Now they pull turbans! Now they lift up their lathis (clubs), and, at last, one falls backward into the mud, and the other runs away. When he comes back the dispute is settled, as the iron-bound bamboo of the loser witnesses. Yet they are not grateful to the Mugger. No, they cry ‘Murder!’ and their families fight with sticks, twenty-a-side. My people are good people–upland Jats–Malwais of the Bet. They do not give blows for sport, and, when the fight is done, the old Mugger waits far down the river, out of sight of the village, behind the kikar-scrub yonder. Then come they down, my broad-shouldered Jats–eight or nine together under the stars, bearing the dead man upon a bed. They are old men with gray beards, and voices as deep as mine. They light a little fire–ah! how well I know that fire!–and they drink tobacco, and they nod their heads together forward in a ring, or sideways toward the dead man upon the bank. They say the English Law will come with a rope for this matter, and that such a man’s family will be ashamed, because such a man must be hanged in the great square of the Jail. Then say the friends of the dead, ‘Let him hang!’ and the talk is all to do over again–once, twice, twenty times in the long night. Then says one, at last, ‘The fight was a fair fight. Let us take blood-money, a little more than is offered by the slayer, and we will say no more about it.’ Then do they haggle over the blood-money, for the dead was a strong man, leaving many sons. Yet before amratvela (sunrise) they put the fire to him a little, as the custom is, and the dead man comes to me, and he says no more about it. Aha! my children, the Mugger knows–the Mugger knows–and my Malwah Jats are a good people!”
“They are too close–too narrow in the hand for my crop,” croaked the Adjutant. “They waste not the polish on the cow’s horn, as the saying is; and, again, who can glean after a Malwai?”
“Ah, I–glean–them,” said the Mugger.
“Now, in Calcutta of the South, in the old days,” the Adjutant went on, “everything was thrown into the streets, and we picked and chose. Those were dainty seasons. But today they keep their streets as clean as the outside of an egg, and my people fly away. To be clean is one thing; to dust, sweep, and sprinkle seven times a day wearies the very Gods themselves.”
“There was a down-country jackal had it from a brother, who told me, that in Calcutta of the South all the jackals were as fat as otters in the Rains,” said the Jackal, his mouth watering at the bare thought of it.
“Ah, but the white-faces are there–the English, and they bring dogs from somewhere down the river in boats–big fat dogs–to keep those same jackals lean,” said the Adjutant.
“They are, then, as hard-hearted as these people? I might have known. Neither earth, sky, nor water shows charity to a jackal. I saw the tents of a white-face last season, after the Rains, and I also took a new yellow bridle to eat. The white-faces do not dress their leather in the proper way. It made me very sick.”
“That was better than my case,” said the Adjutant. “When I was in my third season, a young and a bold bird, I went down to the river where the big boats come in. The boats of the English are thrice as big as this village.”
“He has been as far as Delhi, and says all the people there walk on their heads,” muttered the Jackal. The Mugger opened his left eye, and looked keenly at the Adjutant.
“It is true,” the big bird insisted. “A liar only lies when he hopes to be believed. No one who had not seen those boats could believe this truth.”
“That is more reasonable,” said the Mugger. “And then?”
“From the insides of this boat they were taking out great pieces of white stuff, which, in a little while, turned to water. Much split off, and fell about on the shore, and the rest they swiftly put into a house with thick walls. But a boatman, who laughed, took a piece no larger than a small dog, and threw it to me. I–all my people–swallow without reflection, and that piece I swallowed as is our custom. Immediately I was afflicted with an excessive cold which, beginning in my crop, ran down to the extreme end of my toes, and deprived me even of speech, while the boatmen laughed at me. Never have I felt such cold. I danced in my grief and amazement till I could recover my breath and then I danced and cried out against the falseness of this world; and the boatmen derided me till they fell down. The chief wonder of the matter, setting aside that marvellous coldness, was that there was nothing at all in my crop when I had finished my lamentings!”
The Adjutant had done his very best to describe his feelings after swallowing a seven-pound lump of Wenham Lake ice, off an American ice-ship, in the days before Calcutta made her ice by machinery; but as he did not know what ice was, and as the Mugger and the Jackal knew rather less, the tale missed fire.
“Anything,” said the Mugger, shutting his left eye again–“anything is possible that comes out of a boat thrice the size of Mugger-Ghaut. My village is not a small one.”
There was a whistle overhead on the bridge, and the Delhi Mail slid across, all the carriages gleaming with light, and the shadows faithfully following along the river. It clanked away into the dark again; but the Mugger and the Jackal were so well used to it that they never turned their heads.
“Is that anything less wonderful than a boat thrice the size of Mugger-Ghaut?” said the bird, looking up.
“I saw that built, child. Stone by stone I saw the bridge-piers rise, and when the men fell off (they were wondrous sure-footed for the most part–but when they fell) I was ready. After the first pier was made they never thought to look down the stream for the body to burn. There, again, I saved much trouble. There was nothing strange in the building of the bridge,” said the Mugger.
“But that which goes across, pulling the roofed carts! That is strange,” the Adjutant repeated. “It is, past any doubt, a new breed of bullock. Some day it will not be able to keep its foothold up yonder, and will fall as the men did. The old Mugger will then be ready.”
The Jackal looked at the Adjutant and the Adjutant looked at the Jackal. If there was one thing they were more certain of than another, it was that the engine was everything in the wide world except a bullock. The Jackal had watched it time and again from the aloe hedges by the side of the line, and the Adjutant had seen engines since the first locomotive ran in India. But the Mugger had only looked up at the thing from below, where the brass dome seemed rather like a bullock”s hump.
“M–yes, a new kind of bullock,” the Mugger repeated ponderously, to make himself quite sure in his own mind; and “Certainly it is a bullock,” said the Jackal.
“And again it might be–” began the Mugger pettishly.
“Certainly–most certainly,” said the Jackal, without waiting for the other to finish.
“What?” said the Mugger angrily, for he could feel that the others knew more than he did. “What might it be? I never finished my words. You said it was a bullock.”
“It is anything the Protector of the Poor pleases. I am his servant–not the servant of the thing that crosses the river.”
“Whatever it is, it is white-face work,” said the Adjutant; “and for my own part, I would not lie out upon a place so near to it as this bar.”
“You do not know the English as I do,” said the Mugger. “There was a white-face here when the bridge was built, and he would take a boat in the evenings and shuffle with his feet on the bottom-boards, and whisper: ‘Is he here? Is he there? Bring me my gun.’ I could hear him before I could see him–each sound that he made–creaking and puffing and rattling his gun, up and down the river. As surely as I had picked up one of his workmen, and thus saved great expense in wood for the burning, so surely would he come down to the Ghaut, and shout in a loud voice that he would hunt me, and rid the river of me–the Mugger of Mugger-Ghaut! Me! Children, I have swum under the bottom of his boat for hour after hour, and heard him fire his gun at logs; and when I was well sure he was wearied, I have risen by his side and snapped my jaws in his face. When the bridge was finished he went away. All the English hunt in that fashion, except when they are hunted.”
“Who hunts the white-faces?” yapped the Jackal excitedly.
“No one now, but I have hunted them in my time.”
“I remember a little of that Hunting. I was young then,” said the Adjutant, clattering his beak significantly.
“I was well established here. My village was being builded for the third time, as I remember, when my cousin, the Gavial, brought me word of rich waters above Benares. At first I would not go, for my cousin, who is a fish-eater, does not always know the good from the bad; but I heard my people talking in the evenings, and what they said made me certain.”
“And what did they say?” the Jackal asked.
“They said enough to make me, the Mugger of Mugger-Ghaut, leave water and take to my feet. I went by night, using the littlest streams as they served me; but it was the beginning of the hot weather, and all streams were low. I crossed dusty roads; I went through tall grass; I climbed hills in the moonlight. Even rocks did I climb, children–consider this well. I crossed the tail of Sirhind, the waterless, before I could find the set of the little rivers that flow Gungaward. I was a month’s journey from my own people and the river that I knew. That was very marvellous!”
“What food on the way?” said the Jackal, who kept his soul in his little stomach, and was not a bit impressed by the Mugger’s land travels.
“That which I could find–cousin,” said the Mugger slowly, dragging each word.
Now you do not call a man a cousin in India unless you think you can establish some kind of blood-relationship, and as it is only in old fairy-tales that the Mugger ever marries a jackal, the Jackal knew for what reason he had been suddenly lifted into the Mugger’s family circle. If they had been alone he would not have cared, but the Adjutant’s eyes twinkled with mirth at the ugly jest.
“Assuredly, Father, I might have known,” said the Jackal. A mugger does not care to be called a father of jackals, and the Mugger of Mugger-Ghaut said as much–and a great deal more which there is no use in repeating here.
“The Protector of the Poor has claimed kinship. How can I remember the precise degree? Moreover, we eat the same food. He has said it,” was the Jackal’s reply.
That made matters rather worse, for what the Jackal hinted at was that the Mugger must have eaten his food on that land-march fresh and fresh every day, instead of keeping it by him till it was in a fit and proper condition, as every self-respecting mugger and most wild beasts do when they can. Indeed, one of the worst terms of contempt along the River-bed is “eater of fresh meat.” It is nearly as bad as calling a man a cannibal.
“That food was eaten thirty seasons ago,” said the Adjutant quietly. “If we talk for thirty seasons more it will never come back. Tell us, now, what happened when the good waters were reached after thy most wonderful land journey. If we listened to the howling of every jackal the business of the town would stop, as the saying is.”
The Mugger must have been grateful for the interruption, because he went on, with a rush:
“By the Right and Left of Gunga! when I came there never did I see such waters!”
“Were they better, then, than the big flood of last season?” said the Jackal.
“Better! That flood was no more than comes every five years–a handful of drowned strangers, some chickens, and a dead bullock in muddy water with cross-currents. But the season I think of, the river was low, smooth, and even, and, as the Gavial had warned me, the dead English came down, touching each other. I got my girth in that season–my girth and my depth. From Agra, by Etawah and the broad waters by Allahabad–”
“Oh, the eddy that set under the walls of the fort at Allahabad!” said the Adjutant. “They came in there like widgeon to the reeds, and round and round they swung–thus!”
He went off into his horrible dance again, while the Jackal looked on enviously. He naturally could not remember the terrible year of the Mutiny they were talking about. The Mugger continued:
“Yes, by Allahabad one lay still in the slack-water and let twenty go by to pick one; and, above all, the English were not cumbered with jewellery and nose-rings and anklets as my women are nowadays. To delight in ornaments is to end with a rope for a necklace, as the saying is. All the muggers of all the rivers grew fat then, but it was my Fate to be fatter than them all. The news was that the English were being hunted into the rivers, and by the Right and Left of Gunga! we believed it was true. So far as I went south I believed it to he true; and I went down-stream beyond Monghyr and the tombs that look over the river.”
“I know that place,” said the Adjutant. “Since those days Monghyr is a lost city. Very few live there now.”
“Thereafter I worked up-stream very slowly and lazily, and a little above Monghyr there came down a boatful of white-faces–alive! They were, as I remember, women, lying under a cloth spread over sticks, and crying aloud. There was never a gun fired at us, the watchers of the fords in those days. All the guns were busy elsewhere. We could hear them day and night inland, coming and going as the wind shifted. I rose up full before the boat, because I had never seen white-faces alive, though I knew them well–otherwise. A naked white child kneeled by the side of the boat, and, stooping over, must needs try to trail his hands in the river. It is a pretty thing to see how a child loves running water. I had fed that day, but there was yet a little unfilled space within me. Still, it was for sport and not for food that I rose at the child’s hands. They were so clear a mark that I did not even look when I closed; but they were so small that though my jaws rang true–I am sure of that–the child drew them up swiftly, unhurt. They must have passed between tooth and tooth–those small white hands. I should have caught him cross-wise at the elbows; but, as I said, it was only for sport and desire to see new things that I rose at all. They cried out one after another in the boat, and presently I rose again to watch them. The boat was too heavy to push over. They were only women, but he who trusts a woman will walk on duckweed in a pool, as the saying is: and by the Right and Left of Gunga, that is truth!”
“Once a woman gave me some dried skin from a fish,” said the Jackal. “I had hoped to get her baby, but horse-food is better than the kick of a horse, as the saying is. What did thy woman do?”
“She fired at me with a short gun of a kind I have never seen before or since. Five times, one after another” (the Mugger must have met with an old-fashioned revolver); “and I stayed open-mouthed and gaping, my head in the smoke. Never did I see such a thing. Five times, as swiftly as I wave my tail–thus!”
The Jackal, who had been growing more and more interested in the story, had just time to leap back as the huge tail swung by like a scythe.
“Not before the fifth shot,” said the Mugger, as though he had never dreamed of stunning one of his listeners–“not before the fifth shot did I sink, and I rose in time to hear a boatman telling all those white women that I was most certainly dead. One bullet had gone under a neck-plate of mine. I know not if it is there still, for the reason I cannot turn my head. Look and see, child. It will show that my tale is true.”
“I?” said the Jackal. “Shall an eater of old shoes, a bone-cracker, presume, to doubt the word of the Envy of the River? May my tail be bitten off by blind puppies if the shadow of such a thought has crossed my humble mind! The Protector of the Poor has condescended to inform me, his slave, that once in his life he has been wounded by a woman. That is sufficient, and I will tell the tale to all my children, asking for no proof.”
“Over-much civility is sometimes no better than over-much discourtesy, for, as the saying is, one can choke a guest with curds. I do not desire that any children of thine should know that the Mugger of Mugger-Ghaut took his only wound from a woman. They will have much else to think of if they get their meat as miserably as does their father.”
“It is forgotten long ago! It was never said! There never was a white woman! There was no boat! Nothing whatever happened at all.”
The Jackal waved his brush to show how completely everything was wiped out of his memory, and sat down with an air.
“Indeed, very many things happened,” said the Mugger, beaten in his second attempt that night to get the better of his friend. (Neither bore malice, however. Eat and be eaten was fair law along the river, and the Jackal came in for his share of plunder when the Mugger had finished a meal.) “I left that boat and went up-stream, and, when I had reached Arrah and the back-waters behind it, there were no more dead English. The river was empty for a while. Then came one or two dead, in red coats, not English, but of one kind all–Hindus and Purbeeahs–then five and six abreast, and at last, from Arrah to the North beyond Agra, it was as though whole villages had walked into the water. They came out of little creeks one after another, as the logs come down in the Rains. When the river rose they rose also in companies from the shoals they had rested upon; and the falling flood dragged them with it across the fields and through the Jungle by the long hair. All night, too, going North, I heard the guns, and by day the shod feet of men crossing fords, and that noise which a heavy cart-wheel makes on sand under water; and every ripple brought more dead. At last even I was afraid, for I said: ‘If this thing happens to men, how shall the Mugger of Mugger-Ghaut escape?’ There were boats, too, that came up behind me without sails, burning continually, as the cotton-boats sometimes burn, but never sinking.”
“Ah!” said the Adjutant. “Boats like those come to Calcutta of the South. They are tall and black, they beat up the water behind them with a tail, and they–”
“Are thrice as big as my village. My boats were low and white; they beat up the water on either side of them, and were no larger than the boats of one who speaks truth should be. They made me very afraid, and I left water and went back to this my river, hiding by day and walking by night, when I could not find little streams to help me. I came to my village again, but I did not hope to see any of my people there. Yet they were ploughing and sowing and reaping, and going to and fro in their fields, as quietly as their own cattle.”
“Was there still good food in the river?” said the Jackal.
“More than I had any desire for. Even I–and I do not eat mud–even I was tired, and, as I remember, a little frightened of this constant coming down of the silent ones. I heard my people say in my village that all the English were dead; but those that came, face down, with the current were not English, as my people saw. Then my people said that it was best to say nothing at all, but to pay the tax and plough the land. After a long time the river cleared, and those that came down it had been clearly drowned by the floods, as I could well see; and though it was not so easy then to get food, I was heartily glad of it. A little killing here and there is no bad thing–but even the Mugger is sometimes satisfied, as the saying is.”
“Marvellous! Most truly marvellous!” said the Jackal. “I am become fat through merely hearing about so much good eating. And afterward what, if it be permitted to ask, did the Protector of the Poor do?”
“I said to myself–and by the Right and Left of Gunga! I locked my jaws on that vow–I said I would never go roving any more. So I lived by the Ghaut, very close to my own people, and I watched over them year after year; and they loved me so much that they threw marigold wreaths at my head whenever they saw it lift. Yes, and my Fate has been very kind to me, and the river is good enough to respect my poor and infirm presence; only–”
“No one is all happy from his beak to his tail,” said the Adjutant sympathetically. “What does the Mugger of Mugger-Ghaut need more?”
“That little white child which I did not get,” said the Mugger, with a deep sigh. “He was very small, but I have not forgotten. I am old now, but before I die it is my desire to try one new thing. It is true they are a heavy-footed, noisy, and foolish people, and the sport would be small, but I remember the old days above Benares, and, if the child lives, he will remember still. It may be he goes up and down the bank of some river, telling how he once passed his hands between the teeth of the Mugger of Mugger-Ghaut, and lived to make a tale of it. My Fate has been very kind, but that plagues me sometimes in my dreams–the thought of the little white child in the bows of that boat.” He yawned, and closed his jaws. “And now I will rest and think. Keep silent, my children, and respect the aged.”
He turned stiffly, and shuffled to the top of the sand-bar, while the Jackal drew back with the Adjutant to the shelter of a tree stranded on the end nearest the railway bridge.
“That was a pleasant and profitable life,” he grinned, looking up inquiringly at the bird who towered above him. “And not once, mark you, did he think fit to tell me where a morsel might have been left along the banks. Yet I have told him a hundred times of good things wallowing down-stream. How true is the saying, ‘All the world forgets the Jackal and the Barber when the news has been told!’ Now he is going to sleep! Arrh!”
“How can a jackal hunt with a Mugger?” said the Adjutant coolly. “Big thief and little thief; it is easy to say who gets the pickings.”
The Jackal turned, whining impatiently, and was going to curl himself up under the tree-trunk, when suddenly he cowered, and looked up through the draggled branches at the bridge almost above his head.
“What now?” said the Adjutant, opening his wings uneasily.
“Wait till we see. The wind blows from us to them, but they are not looking for us–those two men.”
“Men, is it? My office protects me. All India knows I am holy.” The Adjutant, being a first-class scavenger, is allowed to go where he pleases, and so this one never flinched.
“I am not worth a blow from anything better than an old shoe,” said the Jackal, and listened again. “Hark to that footfall!” he went on. “That was no country leather, but the shod foot of a white-face. Listen again! Iron hits iron up there! It is a gun! Friend, those heavy-footed, foolish English are coming to speak with the Mugger.”
“Warn him, then. He was called Protector of the Poor by some one not unlike a starving Jackal but a little time ago.”
“Let my cousin protect his own hide. He has told me again and again there is nothing to fear from the white-faces. They must be white-faces. Not a villager of Mugger-Ghaut would dare to come after him. See, I said it was a gun! Now, with good luck, we shall feed before daylight. He cannot hear well out of water, and–this time it is not a woman!”
A shiny barrel glittered for a minute in the moonlight on the girders. The Mugger was lying on the sand-bar as still as his own shadow, his fore-feet spread out a little, his head dropped between them, snoring like a–mugger.
A voice on the bridge whispered: “It’s an odd shot–straight down almost–but as safe as houses. Better try behind the neck. Golly! what a brute! The villagers will be wild if he’s shot, though. He’s the deota [godling] of these parts.”
“Don’t care a rap,” another voice answered; “he took about fifteen of my best coolies while the bridge was building, and it’s time he was put a stop to. I’ve been after him in a boat for weeks. Stand by with the Martini as soon as I’ve given him both barrels of this.”
“Mind the kick, then. A double four-bore’s no joke.”
“That’s for him to decide. Here goes!”
There was a roar like the sound of a small cannon (the biggest sort of elephant-rifle is not very different from some artillery), and a double streak of flame, followed by the stinging crack of a Martini, whose long bullet makes nothing of a crocodile’s plates. But the explosive bullets did the work. One of them struck just behind the Mugger’s neck, a hand’s-breadth to the left of thle backbone, while the other burst a little lower down, at the beginning of the tail. In ninety-nine cases out of a hundred a mortally-wounded crocodile can scramble to deep water and get away; but the Mugger of Mugger-Ghaut was literally broken into three pieces. He hardly moved his head before the life went out of him, and he lay as flat as the Jackal.
“Thunder and lightning! Lightning and thunder!” said that miserable little beast. “Has the thing that pulls the covered carts over the bridge tumbled at last?”
“It is no more than a gun,” said the Adjutant, though his very tail-feathers quivered. “Nothing more than a gun. He is certainly dead. Here come the white-faces.”
The two Englishmen had hurried down from the bridge and across to the sand-bar, where they stood admiring the length of the Mugger. Then a native with an axe cut off the big head, and four men dragged it across the spit.
“The last time that I had my hand in a Mugger’s mouth,” said one of the Englishmen, stooping down (he was the man who had built the bridge), “it was when I was about five years old–coming down the river by boat to Monghyr. I was a Mutiny baby, as they call it. Poor mother was in the boat, too, and she often told me how she fired dad’s old pistol at the beast’s head.”
“Well, you’ve certainly had your revenge on the chief of the clan–even if the gun has made your nose bleed. Hi, you boatmen! Haul that head up the bank, and we’ll boil it for the skull. The skin’s too knocked about to keep. Come along to bed now. This was worth sitting up all night for, wasn’t it?”
Curiously enough, the Jackal and the Adjutant made the very same remark not three minutes after the men had left.
The post PseudoPod 645: HORROR COMEDY SHOWCASE: The Undertakers appeared first on PseudoPod.
Rank #4: PseudoPod 633: Hippocampus
- Author : Adam L.G. Nevill
- Narrator : Peter Bishop
- Host : Alasdair Stuart
- Audio Producer : Marty Perrett
- Discuss on Forums
“Hippocampus” was first published in Terror Tales of the Sea, edited by Paul Finch
Narration is by Peter Bishop, courtesy of Christopher C. Payne at Journalstone. JournalStone is a small press publishing company focusing on horror/science fiction/fantasy in the adult and young adult markets.
This story can be found in Hasty for the Dark: Selected Horrors. These terrors range from the speculative to supernatural horror, encompass the infernal and the occult, and include stories inspired by H. P. Lovecraft, Robert Aickman, and Ramsey Campbell.
Hasty for the Dark is the second short story collection from the award-winning and widely appreciated British writer of horror fiction, Adam L. G. Nevill. The author’s best horror stories from 2009 to 2015 are collected here for the first time.
The author’s thoughts can be perused here:Spoiler Inside
I was intrigued by the idea of producing a horror story without characters: a relationship between the reader and an anonymous narrator, with the latter mimicking a roving camera. This roving point-of-view was, in effect, showing the reader a form of found footage: footage of a place in which something terrible had happened. All that was left for the reader was the aftermath and the evidence: the horrors. The reader becomes a witness at a crime scene; the horrors occurred before the story began. This creates a story that only the reader can piece together within their imagination. So instead of using characters as a vicarious medium, I would just show the reader the raw footage with no middle ground. I found this form could not sustain a story much beyond two thousand words and I chose for my subject a vast but derelict container ship. From our local shores and coastal paths, I watch these Leviathans cross the horizon all the time, on their way to Plymouth. Despite their size they have small crew complements. As a location for a horror story, and in my process of getting the sea and coast deeper within my imagination, a container ship was just the ticket.
The Hartlepool Monkey The Hartlepool Monkey graphic novel Sting – The Soul Cages
by Adam L.G. Nevill
Walls of water as slow as lava, black as coal, push the freighter up mountainsides, over frothing peaks and into plunging descents. Across vast, rolling waves the vessel ploughs, ungainly. Conjuring galaxies of bubbles around its passage and in its wake, temporary cosmoses appear for moments in the immensity of onyx water, forged then sucked beneath the hull, or are sacrificed, fizzing, to the freezing night air.
On and on the great steel vessel wallops. Staggering up as if from soiled knees before another nauseating drop into a trough. There is no rest and the ship has no choice but to brace itself, dizzy and near breathless, over and over again, for the next great wave.
On board, lighted portholes and square windows offer tiny yellow shapes of reassurance amidst the lightless, roaring ocean that stretches all around and so far below. Reminiscent of a warm home offering a welcome on a winter night, the cabin lights are complemented by the two metal doorways that gape in the rear house of the superstructure. Their spilled light glosses portions of the slick deck.
All of the surfaces on board are steel, painted white. Riveted and welded tight to the deck and each other, the metal cubes of the superstructure are necklaced by yellow rails intended for those who must slip and reel about the flooded decks. Here and there, white ladders rise, and seem by their very presence to evoke a kang kang kang sound of feet going up and down quickly.
Small lifeboat cases resembling plastic barrels are fixed at the sides of the upper deck, all of them intact and locked shut. The occasional crane peers out to sea with inappropriate nonchalance, or with the expectation of a purpose that has not come. Up above the distant bridge, from which no faces peer out, the aerials, satellite dishes and navigation masts appear to totter in panic, or to whip their poles, wires and struts from side to side as if engaged in a frantic search of the ever-changing landscape of water below.
The vast steel door of the hold’s first hatch is raised and still attached to the crane by chains. This large square section of the hull is filled with white sacks, stacked upon each other in tight columns. Those at the top of the pile are now dark and sopping with rain and seawater. In the centre, scores of the heavy bags have been removed from around a scuffed and dented metal container, painted black. Until its discovery, the container appears to have been deliberately hidden among the tiers of fibre sacks. One side of the double doors at the front of the old container has been jammed open.
Somewhere on deck, a small brass bell clangs a lonesome, undirected cry – a mere nod to tradition, as there are speakers thrusting their silent horns from the metallic walls and masts. But though in better weather the tiny, urgent sound of the bell is occasionally answered by a gull, tonight it is answered by nothing save the black, shrieking chaos of the wind and the water it thrashes.
There is a lane between the freighter’s rear house and the crane above the open hatch. A passage unpeopled, wet, and lit by six lights in metal cages. MUSTER STATION: LIFEBOAT 2 is stencilled on the wall in red lettering. Passing through the lane, the noise of the engine intake fans fills the space hotly. Diesel heat creates the impression of being close to moving machine parts. As if functioning as evidence of the ship’s purpose and life, and rumbling across every surface like electric current in each part of the vessel, the continuous vibration of the engine’s exhaust thrums.
Above the open hatch and beside the lifeboat assembly point, from a door left gaping in the rear house, drifts a thick warmth. Heat that waits to wrap itself round wind-seared cheeks in the way a summer’s sun cups faces.
Once across the metal threshold the engine fibrillations deepen as if muted underground. The bronchial roar of the intake fans dulls. Inside, the salty-spittle scour of the night air, and the noxious mechanical odours, are replaced by the scent of old emulsion and the stale chemicals of exhausted air fresheners.
A staircase leads down.
But as above, so below. As on deck, no one walks here. All is still, brightly lit and faintly rumbling with the bass strumming of the exhaust. The communal area appears calm and indifferent to the intense black energies of the hurricane outside.
A long, narrow corridor runs through the rear house. Square lenses in the steel ceiling illuminate the plain passageway. The floor is covered in linoleum, the walls are matt yellow, the doors to the cabins trimmed with wood laminate. Halfway down, two opposing doors hang open before lit rooms.
The first room was intended for recreation to ease a crew’s passage on a long voyage, but no one seeks leisure now. Coloured balls roll across the pool table from the swell that shimmies the ship. Two cues lie amongst the balls and move back and forth like flotsam on the tide. At rest upon the table-tennis table are two worn paddles. The television screen remains as empty and black as the rain-thrashed canopy of sky above the freighter. One of the brown leatherette sofas is split in two places and masking tape suppresses the spongy eruptions of cushion entrails.
Across the corridor, a long bank of washing machines and dryers stand idle in the crew’s laundry room. Strung across the ceiling are washing-line cords that loop like skipping ropes from the weight of the clothing that is pegged in rows: jeans, socks, shirts, towels. One basket has been dropped upon the floor and has spilled its contents towards the door.
Up one flight of stairs, an empty bridge. Monitor screens glow green, consoles flicker. One stool lies on its side and the cushioned seat rolls back and forth. A solitary handgun skitters this way and that across the floor. The weapon adds a touch of tension to the otherwise tranquil area of operations, as if a drama has recently passed, been interrupted or even abandoned.
Back down below, deeper inside the ship and further along the crew’s communal corridor, the stainless-steel galley glimmers dully in white light. A skein of steam clouds over the work surfaces and condenses on the ceiling above the oven. Two large, unwashed pots have boiled dry upon cooker rings glowing red. From around the oven door, wisps of black smoke puff. Inside the oven a tray of potatoes has baked to carbon and they now resemble the fossils of reptile guano.
Around the great chopping board on the central table lies a scattering of chopped vegetables, cast wide by the freighter’s lurches and twists. The ceiling above the work station is railed with steel and festooned with swaying kitchenware.
Six large steaks, encrusted with crushed salt, await the abandoned spatula and the griddle that hisses black and dry. A large refrigerator door, resembling the gate of a bank vault, hangs open to reveal crowded shelves that gleam in ivory light. There is a metal sink the size of a bath tub. Inside it lies a human scalp.
Lopped roughly from the top of a head and left to drain beside the plughole, the gingery mess looks absurdly artificial. But the clod of hair was once plumbed into a circulatory system because the hair is matted dark and wet at the fringes and surrounded by flecks of ochre. The implement that removed the scalp lies upon the draining board: a long knife, the edge serrated for sawing. Above the adjacent work station, at the end of the rack that holds the cook’s knives, several items are missing.
Maybe this dripping thing of hair was brought to the sink area from somewhere outside the galley, carried along the corridor and up the flight of stairs that leads from the crew’s quarters. Red droplets as round as rose petals make a trail into the first cabin on a corridor identical to the communal passage on the deck above. The door to this cabin is open. Inside, the trail of scarlet is immediately lost within the borders of a far bigger stain.
A fluorescent jacket and cap hang upon a peg just inside the door of the cabin. All is neat and orderly upon the bookshelf, which holds volumes that brush the low white ceiling. A chest of drawers doubles as a desk. The articles on the desktop are held down by a glass paperweight and overlooked by silver-framed photographs of wives and children at the rear of the desk. On top of the wardrobe, life jackets and hardhats are stowed. Two twin beds, arranged close together, are unoccupied. Beneath the bedframes, orange survival suits remain neatly folded and tightly packed.
The bedclothes of the berth on the right-hand side are tidy and undisturbed. But the white top sheet and the yellow blanket of the adjacent berth droop to the linoleum floor like idle sails. There is a suggestion that an occupant departed this bed hurriedly, or was removed swiftly. The bed linen has been yanked from the bed and only remains tucked under the mattress in one corner. A body was also ruined in that bed: the middle of the mattress is blood-sodden and the cabin reeks of salt and rust. Crimson gouts from a bedside frenzy have flecked and speckled the wall beside the bed, and part of the ceiling.
Attached to the room is a small ensuite bathroom that just manages to hold a shower cubicle and small steel sink. The bathroom is pristine; the taps, shower head and towel rail sparkle. All that is amiss is a single slip-on shoe, dropped on the floor just in front of the sink. A foot remains inside the shoe with part of a hairy ankle extending from the uppers.
From the cabin more than a trail of droplets can be followed further down the passage and towards the neighbouring berths. A long, intermittent streak of red has been smeared along the length of the corridor, past the four doors that all hang open and drift back and forth as the ship lists. From each of these cabins, other collections have been made.
What occupants once existed in the crew’s quarters appear to have arisen from their beds before stumbling towards the doors as if hearing some cause for alarm nearby. Just before the doorways of their berths, they seem to have met their ends quickly. Wide, lumpy puddles, like spilled stew made with red wine, are splashed across the floors. One crew member sought refuge inside the shower cubicle of the last cabin, because the bathroom door is broken open and the basin of the shower is drenched nearly black from a sudden and conclusive emptying. Livestock hung above the cement of a slaughterhouse and emptied from the throat leaves similar stains.
To the left at the end of the passage, the open door of the captain’s cabin is visible. Inside, the sofa beside the coffee table and the two easy chairs sit expectant but empty. The office furniture and shelves reveal no disarray. But set upon the broad desk are three long wooden crates. The tops have been levered off, and the packing straw that was once inside is now littered about the table’s surface and the carpeted floor. Mingled with the straw is a plethora of dried flower petals.
Upon a tablecloth spread on the floor before the captain’s desk, two small forms have been laid out. They lie side by side. They are the size of five-year-old children and blackened by age, not unlike the preserved forms of ancient peoples, protected behind glass in museums of antiquities. They appear to be shrivelled and contorted. Vestiges of a fibrous binding have fused with their petrified flesh and obscured their arms, if they have such limbs. The two small figures are primarily distinguished by the irregular shape and silhouette of their skulls. Their heads appear oversized, and the swollenness of the crania contributes to the leathery ghastliness of their grimacing faces. The rear of each head is fanned by an incomplete mane of spikes, while the front of each head elongates and protrudes into a snout. The desiccated figures have had their lower limbs bound tightly together to create a suggestion of long and curling tails.
Inside the second crate lies a large black stone, crudely hollowed out in the middle. The dull and chipped appearance of the block also suggests great age. A modern addition has been made, or offered, to the hollow within the stone: asingle human foot. The shoe around the disarticulated foot matches the footwear inside the shower cubicle of the crew member’s cabin.
The contents of the third crate have barely been disturbed. In there lie several artefacts that resemble jagged flints, or the surviving blades of old weapons or knives of which the handles are missing. The implements are hand-forged from a stone as black as the basin that has become a receptacle for a human foot.
Pictures of a ship and framed maps have been removed from the widest wall, and upon this wall a marker pen has been used to depict the outlines of two snouted or trumpeting figures that are attached by what appear to be long, entwined tails. The imagery is crude and childlike, but the silhouettes are similar to the embalmed remains laid out upon the tablecloth.
Below the two figures are imprecise sticklike figures that appear to cavort in emulation of the much larger and snouted characters. Set atop some kind of uneven pyramid shape, another group of human figures have been excitedly and messily drawn with spikes protruding from their heads or headdresses. Between the crowned forms another, plainer figure has been held aloft and bleeds from the torso into a waiting receptacle. Detail has been included to indicate that the sacrificed figure’s feet have been removed and its legs bound.
The mess of human leavings that led here departs from the captain’s cabin and rises up a staircase to the deck above and into an unlit canteen.
Light falls into this room from the corridor, and in the half-light two long tables, and one smaller table for the officers, are revealed. Upon the two larger crew tables long reddish shapes lie glistening: some twelve bodies dwindling into darkness as they stretch away from the door. As if they have been unzipped across the front, what was once inside each of the men has now been gathered and piled upon chairs where the same men once sat and ate. Their feet, some bare, some still inside shoes, have been amputated and are set in a messy pile at the head of the two tables.
The far end of the cafeteria is barely touched by the residual light. Presented to no living audience, perversely and inappropriately and yet in a grimly touching fashion, two misshapen shadows flicker and leap upon the dim wall as if in joyous reunion. They wheel about each other, ferociously, but not without grace. They are attached, it seems, by two long, spiny tails.
Back outside and on deck, it can be seen that the ship continues to meander, dazed with desolation and weariness, perhaps punchdrunk from the shock of what has occurred below deck.
The bow momentarily rises up the small hillside of a wave and, just once, almost expectantly, looks towards the distant harbour to which the vessel has slowly drifted all night since changing its course.
On shore, and across the surrounding basin of treeless land, the lights of a small harbour town are white pinpricks, desperate to be counted in this black storm. Here and there, the harbour lights define the uneven silhouettes of small buildings, suggesting stone façades in which glass shimmers to form an unwitting beacon for what exists out here upon these waves.
Oblivious to anything but its own lurching and clanking, the ship rolls on the swell, inexorably drifting on the current that picked up its steel bulk the day before and now slowly propels the hull, though perhaps not as purposelessly as first appeared, towards the shore.
At the prow, having first bound himself tight to the railing with rope, a solitary and unclothed figure nods a bowed head towards the land. The pale flesh of the rotund torso is whipped and occasionally drenched by sea spray, but still bears the ruddy impressions of bestial deeds that were both boisterous and thorough. From navel to sternum, the curious figurehead is blackly open, or has been opened, to the elements. The implement used to carve such crude entrances to the heart is long gone, perhaps dropped from stained and curling fingers into the obsidian whirling and clashing of the monumental ocean far below.
As if to emulate a king, where the scalp has been carved away, a crude series of spikes, fashioned from nails, have been hammered into a pattern resembling a spine or fin across the top of the dead man’s skull. Both of his feet are missing and his legs have been bound with twine into a single, gruesome tail.
Rank #5: PseudoPod 636: Hag Ride
- Author : Eden Royce
- Narrator : Rasheedah Prioleau
- Host : Alasdair Stuart
- Audio Producer : Marty Perrett
- Discuss on Forums
“Hag Ride” was originally published in Steamy Screams from Blood Bound Books (2011), then in the author’s collection Spook Lights: Southern Gothic Horror (2015)
Content warning:Spoiler Inside
Body horror, sexual violence
by Eden Royce
Frieda stood in the kitchen’s dull light with a chopping knife clutched in one hand. The dinner on the table lay untouched, ice-cold and bathing in congealing fat. Her cinnamon coloring disguised the angry flare of heat in her cheeks. Still, she knew yelling wouldn’t get her husband’s attention, so she forced a calm tone into her voice.
“Why aren’t you staying for dinner? I made your favorite.”
“I told you, I got to go out.” Henry came out of their bedroom, buttoning up his good shirt and tucking it into slacks she had taken her time to iron that morning.
“Out where? You can’t stop to eat dinner with your wife before you go? Give me some of your time?”
“Thought I just gave you some.” Henry laughed, his tongue grotesquely pink against his smooth ebony face. He waggled his long, limp penis at her before he tucked it back into his pants.
“Good you put that away. I was going to lop it off.”
“You wasn’t gonna do that to this valuable piece of merchandise.”
“I wanted to spend some time with you. Just us. Like we used to.” Tears threatened to fall from her maple syrup colored eyes.
“A man needs some time to hisself, baby. Told you that long time ago.”
“I know, but…”
He took a pick from his back pocket, a metal one with a balled up fist for a handle and ran it through his short, tight Afro. In the hall mirror, he patted it with both palms to even out the ’do.
“You never said where you were going.”
“Goin’ out with the fellas. Relax and get a couple drinks.”
“You look mighty nice for a night out with Butch and them.” She put the knife down and wiped her hands on her apron. “You promised me no more sleeping around, Henry.”
“I know, baby, I know. Don’t you worry ’bout nothing.” He kissed her cheek and grabbed a pork chop from the platter before heading for the door.
“When are you gonna be home?”
“Late, baby. Real late.”
Frieda parked the aging Chevy at the edge of the dirt road leading to the marsh. She sat in the driver’s seat with the window down and breathed in the sulfurous scent of plough mud and sea grass. Although the marsh teemed with life, loneliness pressed in on her like an unwelcome suitor in the dark.
She walked along the water’s edge toward the small house nestled in the marsh’s protective embrace, unafraid in the blackness. The moon parted the dark in shifting layers as clouds crept across the Carolina sky. As the toe of her shoe hit the porch, the front door creaked open.
“Evening, Big Mama,” she said.
Big Mama stood just over six feet without shoes. Her husky frame held up a massive bosom and her hair, fluffy and cotton white, stood out against her dark skin.
“Lawd, Frieda. You here in the middle of the night? I know what this must be. Get on in here.” The Gullah accent, born on the coastal waterways of the Carolinas, was musical as it fell from her dark, unpainted lips.
Cool marsh breeze broke through the muggy night and the thin curtains fluttered. Frieda sat at the rough-hewn table in the middle of what served as the cabin’s kitchen and dining room while Big Mama bustled around in cabinets and muttered under her breath. She returned to the table with two jelly jars filled with rose-colored liquid.
“Big Mama, I—”
“Drink this first.”
The homemade liquid scorched her throat. She coughed, but the burning cleared her head. The swirling thoughts she’d brought to the cabin solidified into a concrete block of determination. She took another sip while her godmother eased into the chair opposite and lit a cheroot with a blue-tipped match, producing the sweet scents of tobacco and clove.
“What Henry done now?” The wicker chair creaked as Big Mama settled her bulk into it.
“Same old,” Frieda said, turning the jar in her hands, the light from the fire in the nearby iron stove filtering though the glass, causing the liquid inside to shimmer. “Cheating. Staying out all night. I’m tired of it.”
“Mmmph.” Rings of smoke dissolved in the air.
“I’m married. I shouldn’t have to bump around in that house alone all the time.”
“That why you got married? To never be alone?” Her snort forced smoke down from her wide nostrils like an enraged bull. “I got news for you, chile. Alone you come in this world and alone you go out. Nothing gone change that.”
“I got married because I love him. I just want him to love me back.”
“Henry love you in his own way. But that ain’t the way you want, huh?”
“I can’t live like this.”
Her godmother leaned forward and placed a hand on her arm, her scent clean and sweet—peach wine and clothing starch. “You still a beautiful young woman. Find yourself somebody else. Don’t let no man be the death of you. Not like your daddy was to your momma.”
Tears pricked at the corners of her eyes. “I don’t want another man. I made a promise before God and everybody and I will not leave Henry.”
Big Mama tapped ashes in a chipped china teacup. “He ain’t worth the heartache. You better off alone.”
“I don’t ever want to be alone again. I hate it.”
“Sure it not his ding-a-ling you missin’?”
“That’s not the problem.” She turned away from Big Mama’s intense gaze.
“No shame in it, girl. You supposed to like going to bed with your husband. That what make him feel like a man. But it seem your man like going to everybody else bed.” A look of sympathy crossed the heavy woman’s face and her tone became gentle. “You can’t change him, Frieda. You married him that way.”
Henry had been late for their wedding. Big Mama and Francis, her fourth husband, had found him drunk in a motel room with a street girl. Only Francis’s cool head had kept Big Mama from killing Henry right then. She’d pulled a derringer from her bra and had leveled it at the naked couple. The girl had screamed, the crusty motel sheet held to her nudity, then she’d run for the door.
As the girl passed by, Big Mama grabbed her arm and whispered something in her ear before letting her go hollering out into the sunset. Then she waited while Francis cleaned Henry up and they headed for the church. Frieda and Henry were married an hour later.
“I know I can’t change him,” Frieda admitted. “But you can.”
Big Mama extinguished the cigar and drained her wine, but said nothing.
Frieda rushed on. “You can fix it so he never strays from me again. You can put him in a jar or something. I’ve seen you work root. That’s why people are scared of you.”
Big Mama laughed, the sound a rich singsong echo. “They scared ’cause they think root worse than voodoo. Ain’t true. They both dangerous, in the right hand.” The chair groaned as Big Mama leaned back and looked at the ceiling of what had once been slave quarters. “Puttin’ his spirit in a jar don’t stop a man from cattin’ no ways. Only one thing can do that.”
“Right. And the Hag ain’t nothin’ to play with. Not even for me.”
“But you can do it.”
“Oh, I can do it. But I ain’t.”
Frieda got up from her chair and knelt beside the woman who’d taken her in after her mother’s death. “Please. I don’t what else to do.”
“What you need to do is leave well enough alone.”
“I can’t. I need him.”
“You ain’t gonna let this go, huh?” The older woman shook her head and let a sigh escape. “Lawd, that man’s thing must jump up and do a dance inside you.” She fingered the damp, pulpy end of the cigar. “I can tell you this: if I send the Hag after him ain’t no telling what gone happen.”
“She’ll take that extra energy of his and leave enough for me.”
“That what supposed to happen. But I just call her. Ain’t no way to control her. She do as she please.” Big Mama’s pause lasted several loping heartbeats before she spoke again. “This ain’t for you. Go home. Pray on it. Accept your man for what he is or leave him.”
“I can’t do that.” Desperation grew in Frieda’s voice, making it higher pitched than usual. “Why won’t you do this for me? Don’t you want me to be happy?”
“More’n you know, gal.”
Frieda picked at her torn and ragged thumbnail. “Do you want me to pay you?”
“Don’t talk foolish. My advice is always free.”
“There’s other rootworkers out there.” She kept her tone even and non-threatening.
“So your mind is made up.” It wasn’t a question.
Big Mama ran her hand through her puffy curls. “When is your woman time?”
“It’s here now.”
The older woman gaped. “You mean to do this tonight?”
The fire sputtered and a length of wood crumbled to ash with a shoosh. “No man ever the same after she done with him, you know.”
Frieda nodded, not trusting her voice to work around the sudden lump of fear in her throat.
The two women sat on the hardwood floor of the cabin with moonlight illuminating Big Mama’s mise en place for the ritual. Two piles of sea salt, a wad of Henry’s coarse hair tied with butcher’s twine and six blood smeared candles sat next to the refilled juice glasses.
“This your last chance, Frieda. Think this through.”
The younger woman’s face remained resolute. “I’m done thinking.”
Big Mama nodded and lit the first candle. Murky shadows danced to its flickering. When the final candle began to glow, she spoke. “Get me a hidin’ man.”
Frieda smoothed her shirtdress and tiptoed out to the marsh, her Keds squishing in the soft, dank mud. The moon was a smile in the darkness as she looked for a stalk of seagrass leaning heavily to the ground. Finding one, she crouched to complete her task, her feet sinking deeper into the cool, black muck. She plucked a conical shell from the crisp grass and hurried back inside.
Big Mama placed the open end of the shell against her neck and hummed low in her throat. The hum filled the small room, vibrated across the floor to imbed itself in Frieda’s chest and infuse her limbs with its eerie, toneless rumble.
She pulled the shell away from her throat and Frieda saw a small, pale crab, stirred by the vibration, peek out of the shell. Big Mama yanked it from its home and pulled a switchblade, slick with sweat, from the depths of her bosom. In one motion, she opened the knife and skewered the frightened crustacean to the floor before it could scuttle away. Henry’s clump of hair covered the crab’s death throes. She took a gulp of the caustic wine, spat it on the gruesome pile and touched a candle to it. It burned, not destroying the wooden floor, while Frieda’s voice joined the humming.
Wind came, strong through the curtains and the hovering shadows coalesced into a swirling ash grey mass.
“She here. Be ready with the salt.”
The grey cloud moved around the calling space, stopping at each candle, before it slunk between the two women to examine its sacrifice. Satisfied, it slid over to Frieda and swayed like a cobra. She could feel its presence inside her mind, inside her chest and she gasped as it probed at her most tender heartaches. Crushing memories rushed to the surface of her psyche: Henry’s countless betrayals, looks of pity from the local women, laughter from the men. Frieda’s heart seized. She gasped for breath as scabs, new and old, tore from each emotional wound. It delved deeper in its search, picking curiously, while tears grew behind Frieda’s fluttering eyelids. Her chest heaved and quivered with impending sobs.
“The salt. Throw the salt!” Big Mama yelled, breaking through the creature’s trance-inducing sway.
Frieda’s arm shook with the effort of tossing a small handful of salt over her left shoulder. While most of the salt found its way down the front of her dress, enough landed behind her to end the Hag’s internal quest. The smoky funnel whirled and spun with its newfound knowledge.
Brought to the surface again, her pain crystallized into diamond hard resolve, but it eased enough for her to gasp her request. “Make Henry stay with me.”
The whirlwind roiled with fervor, covering the wine-soaked crab carcass in its dervish. When it finally moved, only the switchblade remained. The coil of ash rose in the thick, muggy air and hovered above the women. One word came from the twisting center eye.
It extinguished each candle, then dissipated to leave the women surrounded by darkness and the scent of charred sulfur.
“What’s happenin’, my man?” Henry’s palm met his friend’s in an intricate succession of slaps before he sat on the next barstool in the smoky lounge.
Butch Dempsey took a sip of scotch and turned a shrewd eye on Henry. “Same old, same old. Working til I die.”
“I hear that.”
“What you doing here, anyway? Ain’t this your anniversary night?”
“Shee-it. I was wondering why Frieda was so hell bent on having dinner with me. Shoulda known.” Henry ordered a boilermaker from the bartender and rubbed a broad hand over his face. “How you remember my anniversary and I don’t?”
“’Cause y’all got married six years ago on Janey birthday and I never forget Janey birthday.”
“Right, right. How she doing?”
“Janey? Oh, she has good days and bad days.” Ebony circles hung under Butch’s eyes, stark against his pockmarked mahogany skin. “Starting to be more bad days. But her mama’s with her. Give me a few hours rest.”
“I couldn’t be sick like that. You know, live my life sick. I wanna go quick. Don’t want nobody giving up they life for me.” Henry glanced at his friend. “I don’t mean nothin’ by that, what you do for Janey is good, it’s—”
“Yeah, I know.” Butch drained his glass and stood. “I better get on home.” But he no longer had Henry’s attention.
“Uh huh.” Henry’s gaze was fixed on a woman at the end of the bar. He rose from the barstool, picked up his shot glass and the bottle of beer as though she’d bid him.
“Where’d she come from?” Butch frowned at the sly smile on the strange woman’s lips. A chill crept through his bulky frame and gooseflesh grew on his meaty arms.
“Don’t know. But I’m gonna find out.”
“No, I mean, she wasn’t there a minute ago.”
“Then she come through the back door.” He shook off the hand Butch placed on his shoulder and straightened his collar. “You disturbing my groove.”
“You need to stay away from that one. She seems… freaky.”
“Just what I’m hoping. Catch you on the flip side, man.”
But Henry didn’t respond. He had the scent and nothing could get him off the trail.
Butch watched his friend approach the mysterious woman. He started forward to intercept him and the woman looked up, straight into his eyes. Her grey-blue gaze, startling against her tawny skin, held him fast.
All ambient sound from the crowded bar faded. Butch felt himself grow hard and the throbbing ached like a wound. His skin itched like it was covered in dirt. He dug his short nails into his arm with ruthless fervor. Angry welts rose up and still he raked his flesh, unable to get rid of the feeling that she was on him—in him—crawling around.
He yelped when his blunt nails broke skin. The mental hold loosened and he was able to move. Without another glance at Henry, Butch pushed through the throng of people and hurried from the bar.
The woman was chatting with the bartender as Henry strolled up. “Hey man, give the lady here another one of what she drinking.” He gave her hourglass figure a lingering once-over. “I’m Henry. You sure is foxy.”
“And you’re a little cocky.” Her voice was husky with no trace of Southern drawl.
“You got me wrong, baby.” He took a long pull from his beer then pointed toward her with the bottle. “I’m a big cocky.”
She almost choked on a sip of strawberry daiquiri, but it turned into a spurt of laughter. “Now that is one I haven’t heard before.”
“What’s your name?”
“Does it matter? You’ll only forget it afterwards.”
He leaned closer and her fragrance glided over the smokiness of the bar, a tangy mixture of sea air and citrus fruit. “After what, little mama?”
A coy smile accompanied her words. “After tonight.”
“Now, how you know what gonna happen tonight? I might decide to take my time and court you.”
She shook her head and chestnut ringlets brushed her bare shoulders. “It’s my last night in town.”
“You got people here?”
“Nope, it’s a business trip for me.”
“Business? What kinda work you do?”
She ran her tongue over her straight, smooth teeth. “I make people over.”
Henry nodded. “That Avon kinda thing? Cool. Cool.” He downed the shot of whiskey. “So, this your last night, huh?”
“Umm hmm.” She looked up at him, her grey-blues glittering.
“That’s a shame. Guess I’m gonna have to work fast.” He slapped a ten down on the counter and stood.
“Not too fast, I hope.”
“You must make some serious bread. This ain’t no cheap motel.” Henry strolled around the expansive suite, whistling at all the extra touches. Fresh flowers blossomed in a vase on the side table next to an overflowing fruit basket. A corner of the king-sized bed was turned down, revealing crisp sheets.
“I like to be comfortable when I travel.” She tossed her clutch purse on the bedside table.
“This ain’t just comfortable. This is… nice. Real nice.” He stood in the middle of the room, gawking, until the sound of a zipper grabbed his attention. The woman stepped out of the purple satin puddle at her feet and stood, clad in only a black strapless bra and panties, at the foot of the bed. Any thoughts he might be out of his league evaporated.
“Well, don’t stop now.” He unbuttoned his own shirt and tossed it on the floor as he strode over to her. She nudged him toward the bed.
“Why don’t you lie down and watch the rest?”
“Oh, yeah. I like that, baby.”
Henry lay down in the middle of the bed and watched her reach behind her back to unhook her bra. Her high breasts sprang free from their confines and he salivated at the sight of her dark, hard nipples. She climbed onto the foot of the bed and crawled up Henry’s body, her eyes laughing with challenge.
She straddled his waist and ground herself against his hardness as she brushed one breast over his lips. He opened his mouth and sucked on the stiffened tip. Warm liquid flowed into his mouth and after his initial surprise, he suckled harder. He tried to reach up and pull her closer, but his body resisted, seizing up with the effort of movement. His eyes widened.
“No, Henry. You don’t get to touch me.” Her silky voice darkened as her milk soured in his mouth. Lumpy curds drained down his cheeks. He gagged, tried to turn his head and spit, but his thick lips were fused to her slick flesh.
“You asked me what my name was,” she said as her fingers stroked his throat, forcing him to swallow the thick pap. Henry groaned as his stomach twisted, but it refused to expel the foul liquid. Her swollen nipple popped from his mouth when she leaned back to remove her brief panties. “It’s Eldra.” As the silk slid down her thighs, fat drops of her vaginal fluid fell onto the crotch of the panties, bleaching the fabric a sickly yellow-white.
“Don’t ring a bell?” Eldra draped the ruined underwear over Henry’s face, ignoring his gurgled protests as the caustic fabric burned his skin. “No one here calls me that. They call me a hag. Can you believe it?” She slid down to his crotch, her bristly pubic hair like needles in his groin as her nails ripped through denim and exposed the length of him. She squatted, legs wide, her nether lips open to expose two tiny rows of glinting silver-white teeth.
His scream bubbled through the lumps in his throat as she lowered herself onto his stiff penis. Eldra shoved her fingers into Henry’s open mouth, turning the panties into a putrid gag as she rode him with demonic wildness while he lay immobile, unable to stop the flesh-rending fuck.
Hours later, Eldra climbed off his limp, wasted body. She gave an impressed grunt. “Ooh, Henry. You’re still hard.” She took his mutilated penis in her palms and gripped it, holding the flayed pieces together. Her salt and citrus scent filled the room as she lowered her acidic mouth again and again.
“We patched him up the best we could, Miz Frieda.” The young nurse said as she reached for the door to the shared patient room.
Frieda blocked the door and whispered, “How bad is it?”
The nurse hesitated. “It’s… uh… He’s been asking for you.”
“Frieda? That you?” Henry’s voice was high-pitched and weak. “Frieda, please. I need you.”
He sounds exhausted. That witch must have done her job.
“I’ll be at the desk if you need anything.” The nurse made a hasty exit.
Frieda hovered in the doorway, twisting the knob back and forth. The police had found him in an alley, the doctor had said, unconscious. He’d been beaten badly, but his clothes were still neat and pressed, as if they’d been removed and replaced later. They’d wanted to talk to her more, but she said she needed to see Henry first. She put iron in her spine and pulled the door open and strode in. Two beds were inside—the near one cradled an old man and the other housed a hunched figure, turned to face the far window, covered in a thin blanket. No sign of her husband.
She walked toward the window until she heard a rasping behind her. “I’m here. Frieda. Here.”
Slowly, she turned to face the first bed. Her breath caught in her throat as she realized it was her husband, her Henry, small and shriveled in the middle of the bleach white sheets. His face was a mass of blotches, where the smooth dark skin seemed to have dissolved. At the corner of his lips, white chunky crusts formed. I need him, she’d said. Now look at him.
He reached out a shaky hand to her, his flesh slack over the wasted muscle. One of his eyes was wide and pleading, the other a cloudy grey. She stepped toward the bed and pulled back the sheet covering his lower body. No, not that, too. Shriveled to nothing, the skin held together with tiny black stitches.
What you gonna do now, Frieda?
The officers waited for her in the hall, she could see their indigo uniforms through the window. One of them looked up and met her gaze. Absently, she patted Henry’s hand then beckoned the men to enter.
“We’d like to ask you some questions, Mister Cannon. Are up to talking about what happened to you?”
Henry turned his head into the pillow.
“Henry,” she whispered loud enough for both men to hear. “Answer them.”
When he didn’t respond, Frieda closed her eyes and her hand dropped away from her husband’s shoulder. “Officers, I don’t think he’s up to talking to anyone right now. I’m going to get some coffee.”
All three of them left the room and headed toward the canteen. The taller man placed his hand at the small of her back to usher her forward and it sent a thrill through her where it pooled into her core. She looked up into his disarming grey-blue eyes. “It’s gonna be okay.”
Frieda knew that it would.
Rank #6: PseudoPod 635: Last Week I Was Esther
- Author : Deborah L. Davitt
- Narrator : John Bell
- Host : Alasdair Stuart
- Audio Producer : Marty Perrett
- Discuss on Forums
PseudoPod 635: Last Week I Was Esther is a PseudoPod original.
Last Week I was Esther
by Deborah L. Davitt
Last week, I was Esther. I remember her plump face, pearl earrings, and huge handbag, stuffed with treats for her grandchildren—as stuffed as she was inside, with sweetmeats and perfumed memories of the postwar years. I’ve tended to pursue older people for a while, with their minds full of experiences. Dementia patients don’t work, though. When I’m them, I’m even more confused as to who I am, than I usually feel.
And then we get hungry again.
Oh, don’t get me wrong. People rarely entirely go away even after their life-energy’s been expended. Their echoes join the chorus of voices clamoring in my mind. When I close my eyes, I’m the sea, and they’re the waves. Except the sea is the waves, and the waves are the sea. Sometimes we’re divided against each other. Sometimes they’re me and I’m them, passing like water through water. Once in a while, I can see a tiny bit of flotsam being sucked under a towering whitecap, and I wonder who or what that part of me once was.
Being Esther was a problem. She wanted to see her grandkids, wanted to kiss the tops of their heads and smell shampoo and sweet skin. I could feel myself expanding out to take up her shape—no wrinkles, of course, since I don’t age, but her general size and conformation. I’d been lean and short for the last month, while I was Leon. Now, I could feel my hair growing, brushing my cheeks in dark, glossy waves. Leon had shaved his head to conceal his premature baldness.
Thing is, people don’t usually recognize me. At least, my kids and grandkids don’t. A wedding photo from 1944, browning at the edges, isn’t something that they recognize as real. Grandma or Grandpa, with gray hair and creased faces? Those are just barely more real than photos to the young. And back before photography, not many people could afford portraiture, and it wasn’t as if paintings were accurate. All that artistic license. Back then, I might have encountered a friend who’d known me from the cradle, and they’d have jumped a bit, then laughed nervously and tell me I was the spitting image of someone. And things could be smoothed over.
That’s another reason I usually prefer older people. It’s just easier to walk off as an unknown young person, leaving an old corpse behind.
Old corpses. The thought triggered a flicker of memory from some long-gone battlefield. Not the clean black-and-white images captured by News Parade cameras and shown before movies. Men and women lying dead in a cobblestone street, where a burning sun beat down from behind sere brown mountains. Colorful robes, sticky with the same blood that ran in the gutter. A dead horse, fallen and bloated in its traces. A city wall, breached. The cries of the dying—
Esther’s breath caught in my throat, choked by memories not her own as we followed the chain-link fence outside the school. She fought them down, knowing that they weren’t hers, were no part of her. You don’t get to erase me, she thought, not yet. I’m going to see my grandchildren. My legacy. My testament that I was here on this earth, the only thing that time can’t efface.
The chorus howled, “They’ll scream and run if you walk up to them looking like this and say ‘give Grammy a kiss.’” Other voices yelped, “You’re going to say I could just eat you up, and you’ll do just that, and then we’ll be them. And they’ll be in here with us! Do you want that?”
Esther—I—stood at the edge of the playground, watching. Security guards came to talk to me as her tears streaked down my face. I babbled something about not being able to have children of my own, and they walked me off the property to ensure I wouldn’t do something insane, like stealing one of the kids.
Or eating them. Becoming them.
Not that they knew about that part, of course.
Esther’s loving heart was a liability. She worried about her husband, Tommy, past eighty and alone in their apartment. About how he was taking her disappearance. Her relentless compulsion to make sure he was eating. She’d been a nurse since the war years. Taking care of other people was what she did, and what she did was who she was. Another reason to like older people. Younger people did nothing, made nothing, were nothing but a collection of online tribal identity markers. As hollow as I was myself.
But being her was exhausting.
At her tiny apartment, Tommy stood in the doorframe, shock written on his leathery face. “Esther?” he whispered. “Are you a ghost?”
I gave him a kiss on the cheek, as bashful as a bride, and teased, “Does that feel like a ghost, sweetie?”
Stunned, he let us in, and I put on her apron and made dinner. An old Depression-era standby, corned beef hash on toast. Bypassed his querulous, angry questions as best I could. But Esther’s damned soft heart broke when he growled, “So you get the Fountain of Youth treatment, and I get to die of old age?”
“No, sweetie,” I whispered, her tears springing easily to my eyes again. “I’m going to make sure you get a shot at it, too. I can’t live without you.”
And as Tommy lowered his head over his plate, I leaned down and Esther gave him a kiss at the back of the neck. Just like when they’d been twenty. And then I bit down, tearing through skin, gristle, and bone for the sweet taste of brainstem. He shouted, but couldn’t move, paralyzed instantly as my tongue slid into the hole and split into the thousand filaments of ribbon that infiltrate a brain to let me feed.
And as Esther sank down into the dark abyss of the chorus, and I remembered the smell of grease and diesel exhaust, the drone of a thousand engines lifting off from an airfield in the South Pacific. I took an exploratory first step, the ghost of a limp halting my stride. The memory of old shrapnel in the knee, twisting the flesh tight. Tommy’s anger boiled up inside me even as Esther’s curves flattened into the whipcord-lean body he’d had when rations had been short and he’d been sweating his ass off in the Marshall Islands.
His rage tastes like copper on my tongue as he upbraids his wife silently, “You couldn’t live without me, so you kill me? What kind of messed up romantic bullshit is that, Esther? I’m fine without the arthritis, but I didn’t ask you to drag me down into hell with you. I kind of figured I’d get there on my own.” I straightened my shoulders. “At least when it’s my turn, I’m going to have the courtesy to kill someone that I hate, not someone I’m supposed to love.”
She wept in the chorus, all those tears that have always come so easily to her. A twinge of guilt in Tommy, but at least they weren’t dampening my cheeks as I limped around the house, cleaning up his old body. The chorus, however, roiled in agitation. Tommy was a strong personality. They remembered strong personalities. They knew the trouble we get into, when we’re one of them.
Weaker personalities are easier. Sometimes one of them (not like Esther; her love was so strong it made her dangerous) will crumble and sink into the abyss, leaving no one in charge. And that’s worse than absorbing the mind of a dementia patient. Then I’m just a black hole filled with voices, an automaton that shambles the streets speaking in tongues. I’ve wound up in asylums that way.
Most modern young doctors think it’s a put-on when I talk to them in medieval Italian. But back in the twenties, spiritualists who believed in reincarnation and past-life migration, would try to get me to talk to ghosts. If there’s a god, he must have a sense of humor. I could have let those earnest young spiritualists talk to any number of ghosts just by opening my mouth. But I’d been wary. After all, I’d had too many run-ins over the centuries with equally earnest young priests, with their talk of demonic possession and exorcism.
I wasn’t possessed by demons. I’m possessed by humans.
Sometimes I find it easier to deal with the chorus when I’m a strong personality. The waves of their voices pound against a tough mind like a stone jetty, immobile and fixed. Being them can be a relief. Except when they’re a liability.
Sooner or later, we’re all a liability.
I finished wrapping the old corpse in plastic garbage bags. No emotion in Tommy at the sight of his wrinkled body beyond a thank god that’s over. That disturbed the chorus. No one ever thinks that way about their own body. They swallow their gorge. They shake. They weep. Not Tommy.
With him, it was all is there a furnace in the basement to burn this? Hmm, not like the kids have dropped by in the last year. They’re pictures on a wall to me. Not like Esther, always having to be involved in everything—they saw enough of her, though, that they might notice if weeks go by and she hasn’t pestered them. A month, then. Plenty of time to enjoy this.
The chorus didn’t like that. Too much pragmatism. Too much lust for life, mixed with cold indifference. They’ve sometimes united to pull down someone they found dangerous to our continued survival, and placed an older personality back in charge, burning out the last echo of that person’s life-energy to do so. I hate it when they do that. I hate waking up in a bed and not knowing who I am.
They lunged for his memories, trying to learn him, to discover how to work him, manipulate him. Found images of men dying in the South Pacific, of his own wounding. He fought them, refusing to look, and then they pushed too hard, and I was drowning in them, becoming someone I didn’t know, didn’t remember—
—marching in the line of troops promised by my lord to the Pope, passing through the cities of the Holy Roman Empire. Reaching Byzantium with its smell of olive oil and strange spices, the clamor of voices in a dozen languages. Footsore, boarding ships to take us to the Holy Land. Bright banner flapping proudly from my lords lance, the red cross on the white field reminding us why we were here.
Tommy fought it. I fought it. We all recoiled with the sudden awareness that under the waves of the abyss, darker things lurked.
—Hearing of the massacres perpetrated by the serfs of the Peasants’ Crusade who’d crossed through Europe ahead of us, against Jews who’d been offered sanctuary within an archbishop’s palace . . . hearing them glory in it as they swilled ale in Byzantium? Made me feel unclean. And yet, to take up the Cross meant redemption from any sin . . . .
The chorus dragged the memories back down to benthic depths, and then we stood there in Tommy’s apartment over his dead body, panting. “No more of that shit,” he growled, and I agreed.
We dumped the body in the furnace as he assimilated the information he needed to ensure our survival. With him in us, we’ve got a month before we need to eat again, and suddenly, I’ve got ideas of how to spend those days. I’ve been a miserable old bastard, confined to a dying body for decades. I’m going to make use of how long I’m here.
Instead of surveying old folk’s homes, I cruised clubs to dance with these modern girls and boys. So soft and pretty and filled with high ideals. Stuffed with the conviction that they’re different from everyone who’s ever gone before, just as stuffed as Esther had been with love. I laughed up my sleeve. They’re the same as every other generation. Old insecurities and twitching neuroses hidden behind new names and false pride. When I took them home, back to where I’ve shoved the old twin beds together, I sated appetites that Esther never knew I had.
But I detested these soft young things in my bed, their wide eyes at the furniture that they admiringly called “retro” or “upcycled from someone’s yardsale—awesome.” We wondered if eating them would taste like veal—bland, soft, and formless. Maybe an immigrant instead? Someone with the taste of struggle and sacrifice on them? Or maybe a politician, someone well-seasoned with power? Someone whose life I could lead profitably for a month.
The chorus protested, Esther, especially. “You were a good man,” she mourned as the others shouted, “Don’t feed on anyone who’ll be missed. Do you want to wind up in jail?”
That gave him a little pause. It’d been a while since I’d been anyone who relished living the way Tommy did, and it had made me reckless. I could remember my last stint in a prison, back in 1965, when I was Vernon Freeman, a black man who’d campaigned for equal rights.
The chorus flung Vernon’s memories at us, to try to scare Tommy into submission. Steel-toed boots colliding with our kidneys, the coppery taste of blood in our mouth. Eyes too swollen to open, unable to do more than try to hold our arms up over our head in meager self-defense—
—and then some barrier inside us breaks, and I’m in some Byzantine street, and I’ve said something shit-stupid to a group of drunk German peasants, whose eyes show white all around, because forty thousand untrained serfs encountered trained, armed Turks, and were slaughtered almost to the last man. My words echo in the air: “Maybe God judged you for having murdered those Jews,” and then they’re on me, kicking and punching and I fall to the cobblestones, bleeding—
—and Vernon fell in his cell, dying—
And the chorus howled and dragged us out of it. Made us remember how we’d put on Abigail Blake’s blond hair and cut-glass British accent, demanding through bleeding lips to be released from this American jail forthwith. We’d accused the police guards of all kinds of things, and they were so rightfully terrified of the repercussions to their jobs that they couldn’t get rid of us fast enough.
Vernon had chortled gleefully in the chorus, laughter made of bitterness and delight at once. But once out of the police station, Abigail had been helpless—the last vehicle she’d used had been a respectable landau in Victoria’s reign. She had no idea how to drive a Plymouth. So we’d brought up Francois Deveraux, whom I’d been briefly during the Nazi occupation of France. He knew how to drive. How not to draw attention.
And then I’d had to rest for months, burning through the last echoes of personas, unable to hunt. Rapid body swaps take energy. The chorus had bickered over the decision to be Vernon in the first place all the while. But I hadn’t been able to resist being him, at least for a little while. He’d been so rich with passion and anger, the kind of tangy emotion I so rarely get to taste. It’s safer being quiet souls. The kind who drift, lost, through life.
Vernon had also been a good man. I hadn’t been able to remember the last time I’d been a good person. Probably the same urge that had made me reach out for Esther, come to think of it. The grind of banal lives and petty resentments gets tedious over the centuries. And no era has ever been as petty as the current one. A solid reason to hunger for saints and martyrs, even though I can’t possibly deserve to be one of them. Not even for a little while.
But in spite of all those cautionary memories, Tommy wanted to feel alive again, as he hadn’t for years. When I go out, I want it to be memorable. A monument to my existence. Something better than a slot in a veteran’s cemetery and a funeral that no one attends. You’ll be my living testament. All of you. All of us.
He just couldn’t decide, however, who we were going to be next. His only criterion was that he had to hate the person enough to kill them. And he had too many options. The teenagers down the street with their skateboards and facial piercings, for instance. But they were annoyances, not worth the risk of eating. “They’re a moment on the lips! They have no experience! And that’s what we need, or we’ll have to eat someone else within a week. Pick someone at least forty!” the chorus demanded.
Then one morning, I woke up in a bed that I know wasn’t my own. And I had no idea who I was, or how I’d gotten there.
I got up and stared at myself in a mirror, at a head as bald as a cancer survivor’s, the shape of all the lovely bones underneath the skin visible and stark. I stared into my own eyes, which shifted from brown to green to blue as I watched. Skin? A rather sickly gray—as gray as I felt right now, a cloud hanging where my mind should be. I licked my dry lips and wandered around my room—surely a hotel room—picking up the belongings there. Men’s clothing, too big for my frame. A wallet, with a driver’s license belonging to elderly man, Tommy. . . .
Understanding flickered back, with the first whispers of the chorus. Right. I’d been Tommy, but I wasn’t anyone right now—
“Tommy was a liability.” The voices became louder.
I sat numbly on the edge of the bed. Was this who I was? Was this the base person, or was this an amalgam self, eroded fragments thousands of minds, washing up like sand on a shore? Or was I nothing but an empty shell, filled with the voices of the damned and dead?
Hunger pooled at the base of my skull, the aching longing to be someone. To be filled up by them, if only for a little while. But I couldn’t move. Couldn’t motivate myself towards the room’s wretched door. “You have to eat,” the chorus snarled at me with the voices of Vernon and Abigail and Esther: “When you don’t eat, you turn into a monster, feeding without control. We want no part of it, the wantonness, death after death, with no real choice in who we kill, who we become.” Another set of voices, Leon and Francois and others, hissing: “If you don’t eat, we die with you. We don’t want to die, even though you killed us. Get up!”
I closed my eyes against their demands. Maybe I wasn’t the monster. Maybe their combined drive for survival, the human thirst to go on, was the monster. Maybe they’d . . . been me, as much as I’d been them. Maybe they’d made me what I was, the sum of all their parts.
It was hard to think, with all their voices screaming, my mind hazy as morning fog. I got leadenly to my feet and went to the window. Outside, I saw a twenty-story drop, but of course the casements didn’t open. Safety standards.
The sight triggered a memory. Dim, but somehow truer than anything the chorus had ever shown me. Seeing my hands set colored pieces of glass in lead frames. Setting the finished window in place, my skin dyed ruby and sapphire by the light streaming through the tiny mosaic pieces.
I’d been someone else then. Someone whose hands were calloused both by work and by swords. Someone whose mind shied away from memories of foul deeds done in the name of God. My lord rode for Antioch, and I followed. My sword red-slick—the Turks bled the same color as any other men; their dying cries sounded just as piteous. The stench of open bowel and dying hands reaching for my legs as I helped carry the wounded out of the field. Save us. Save us. Please, god, save us, we don’t want to die.
I blinked, hearing the distant roar of the chorus, clamoring that they didn’t want to die. How many souls had I carried with me in darkness? Was I saving them? Was I damned by them?
My lord dying two years after having claimed Antioch for his own, fighting not the Turks, but the Byzantines and other Crusader lords over who held claim to which lands.
Walking the long roads home. Knowing in my heart that there could be no forgiveness for lives taken in an unjust cause. Understanding that the war had never been fought for God, but for earthly power and riches.
Breath fought for admittance in my constricted throat. My chest burned. Still no name. I’d been someone who wanted to sink into obscurity, to drown in it. Days spent listening to the monks sing their prayers as he made beautiful things for them. The words of God, rendered into glass. Images that replaced the intolerable visions in his head. Labor as penance.
Then I remembered looking through the window as my hands worked, to where the Bishop had some poor altar boy over the altar itself. Remembered shouting down at him to stop. He’d looked up at me, his mouth round with shock And then I’d tumbled through the half-set window, light falling in colored shards around me in the long descent towards the marble floor. My last thoughts before the pain of impact, I should have died before I returned home to find that evil was everywhere. That there was no salvation for what I’d seen and done, no salvation for who I’d been or become . . . .
I looked up, seeing the Bishop above me—reaching down to administer last rites? No, he held my mouth and nose closed, because I’d seen, I knew, and he couldn’t take the chance that I’d speak. As my agonized breath strangled in my chest, I prayed that he’d know what true horror was, the horror he’d inflicted on others.
Then he screamed, and I was him, holding down my first/not-first dying body, panicking because I knew that I wasn’t myself, I wasn’t him, I was something between the two, neither man, nor beast, nor angel . . . .
. . . and then I fell through those memories as if through glass, and I was Ermolao Famizi, and I hadn’t breathed fresh air since the Crusades. I wobbled, backing away from the clear glass and the long fall, staring at all the strange, magic devices in this huge, rich room with its strange smells, and I shook in terror.
It was the voices that steadied me. Voices like angels, like devils. A chorus of the damned. They reminded me of all the wonders I’d seen in the past thousand years. Told me I was one of them. “Don’t be a liability. Get this body moving. Downstairs.” To where there were other people to meet. Other people to be.
Inexorably, their voices moved me forward. Longing for blessed nonexistence, I gave the clear glass of the windows a steady look. I could end it. I could end all of us. But we were being punished; we were all punishing each other, the guilty and the damned. To try to escape our penance might be as much a sin as continuing to endure it. As continuing to inflict it.
No! they clamored, clinging to life. No! We want to live! You took our lives from us once—you have no right to take them again.
But I hadn’t. I’d never taken any of them. My own had been taken from me. And after a thousand years of penance, did I not deserve freedom? Had they not, by putting me back in charge of this body, given me the right to choose?
They clamored and struggled. Tried to wrest control back from me as my fingers sought window latches that weren’t there. And then they rose up as one, overwhelming me like the tide of men rising up over Antioch’s walls on siege ladders. Their dead hands clutched at me like the hands of the men dying in the fields, begging me to save them, too.
And I sank down under them once more, subsumed, but with one last, lingering thought: Someday, we will all be free.