Book: Black Wings IV: New Tales of Lovecraftian Horror

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HALF LOST IN SHADOW

 

W. H. Pugmire

 

Wilum Hopfrog Pugmire has been an obsessed Lovecraftian since reading E’ch-Pi-El’s tales and letters in the early 1970s. His many books include Bohemians of Sesqua Valley (Arcane Wisdom, 2013), Uncommon Places (Hippocampus Press, 2012), Some Unknown Gulf of Night (Arcane Wisdom, 2011) and The Tangled Muse (Centipede Press, 2011). He dreams in Seattle.

“I am half sick of shadows,” said The lady of Shalott.

—Alfred, Lord Tennyson

 

 

IT WAS MY FIFTIETH BIRTHDAY, AND I RESOLVED TO get drunk. So I left the cozy porch that was my refuge and strolled that afternoon to the liquor store, where I spent a fortune on a bottle of rum that had been distilled in 1952, in Martinique. Clutching the paper bag in which I carried my bottle of golden nectar, I strolled along the shoreline where most of the ancient wharves had been broken apart or fallen in rot into the water. On one dilapidated pier, however, a phantom danced. Her theatrical gown of black swayed about her and conjoined with the dark veils that hung about her figure. I was too far from her to make out her face, most of which was covered by her length of raven hair; but I thought that perhaps she wore a pall over her countenance. We had many zanies in Kingsport, among our poets and painters mostly; but their crazy antics rarely disturbed me in any real way, as this creature did. I watched for a few minutes, until she stopped moving as she faced my direction; and the way that she was bent over, heaving and juddering, so reminded me of a bird of prey preparing for a kill that, nonplussed, I continued on my way to Water Street and the ancient cottage whose porch I called my home.

It was going on late afternoon by the time I reached the high iron gate that opened onto my place of residence, and I was happy to walk past the gnarled trees in the front yard, among which strange large stones had been oddly grouped and painted so that they resembled the queer alien idols of some obscure Asian or African temple. Those stones had been effective in keeping people away from the former occupant of the cottage, a tall lean centenarian known to most as the Terrible Old Man, a non-social fellow who paid for groceries and household items with antique coins of minted silver and gold.

It was my habit to camp out on the front porch of the centuried cottage, an area that held warmth no matter the time of year; but I didn’t want to spend my birthday alone, and so I pushed open the narrow oak door of the dwelling and entered into a dusky room that was crowded with the bizarre items that its former sea-captain occupant had collected during his decades of travel and plunder. Near one small-paned window I had set a table, which I had found in an otherwise empty room and on which a collection of peculiar bottles had been placed, in each of which a small piece of lead or stone was suspended pendulum-wise from a string attached to the cork stopper. When the Terrible Old Man lived, he would sit at the table in the small room, drink his booze, and talk to these bottles, and after the old captain’s disappearance I continued this practice. But I hadn’t liked the lonesomeness of the little room, and so I had moved the table and its bottles to the more spacious main room, next to a window that overlooked the yard and its suggestively painted stones.

I took the bottle of Rhum Clément Tres Vieux X. O. from its paper bag and set it on the table, pulled up a high stool and sat. “I drink to you, my hearties!” I saluted the dusty containers before me, touched the bottle’s mouth to my lips, and sipped. The liquor was dry, woody, with a hint of spice and fruit in its body. “Shall I drink to another fifty years? Am I doomed to exist here as did the captain, a lonely loon aged one hundred years, lingering on because extinction is of little import? Ah, but where are my manners?” Leaning toward the dusty old bottles, I poured a little of the precious liquid onto the stopper of each one, smiling as minute streams of rum trickled down the streaked sides of murky glass. “Imbibe, mates.”

I drank until the light of day was extinguished outside the small-paned window; and then I lit three stout candles near the table and drank some more. As flickering shadows danced about the cluttered room, I made up pirate ditties and serenaded the pendulums inside the bottles, those pendulums on which small indistinct faces had been chiseled. In a voice that grew slurred, I spoke to those pendulums of my easy life, of the poetry I had written, of the poems I may yet compose; and as they harkened to my words, those pendulums seemed to vibrate in sympathy at the mutterings of a drunken fool. I laughed as eyesight blurred and the dusty old bottles took on new shapes, and I gibbered at the shadow that pressed against the window from outside, the shadow that seemed to regard me and to which I raised my nearly empty bottle of nectar. “Come in, come in. Rest among our other shadows and dream the misty dreams of Kingsport. Come, out of the cold wind and chilly moonlight. Have a sip as I celebrate this disease called ‘Life.’ Come on, no need to flitter beneath the gnarled trees, among the scheming stones. Enter!”

I laughed as I was answered by the wind that danced among the branches of the nearby trees, those branches that tapped against the antediluvian dwelling. A momentary movement of tempest rushed about me as the cottage door was opened, and I nodded at the shadow that spilled into the room. As my blurred eyesight took in the phantom, I thought I recognized it; and as I scrutinized the being it began to spin, so that its black dress and dark veils lifted to the room’s low ceiling. I watched its danse, and my sodden head began to spin with it, until the wormy walls appeared to bend. The creature stopped to contemplate me, but how it could do so I could not comprehend, for it wore no face. Lifting my bottle to it, I proposed a toast, but then I noticed that my rum had been entirely consumed. However, I had a half-bottle of white wine among my stash on the porch where I slept, and so I struggled to my feet to fetch it; but before I could take more than a half-step, I fell and felt my face crash against the floorboard.

“A pale thing floating in a blur of fleecy jet, with eyes that watched as it twisted to and fro. It sways like the small humming things inside the Terrible Old Man’s bottles, those petite pendulums on which faces of a sort had been carved. Ancient eyes in a youthful face—penetrating gaze. Strings of lifeless hair, dull brown in hue, and the thin hungry mouth. Oh, the sad sad smile.”

Soft laughter sighed from her as the phantom listened to my talk, my words that I had meant to be thought alone as I emerged from the shadow of my drunken blackout. The figure had removed the veil with which her thin and pretty face had been covered. Bending to me, she smoothed one hand against my forehead, where I felt a tender pain. I detected a scent of lilacs in her tangled hair, probably an ointment. Suddenly, she floating upward and perched onto the edge of the chair at the table, and I watched as she examined the dusty bottles. “I had a pirate ancestor who was engaged by an old sea-captain.” Turning her head, she looked on me with an expression I could not read. “Philippa Angelica Ellis, of Toronto.” She returned her attention to the bottles and began to hum an eccentric tune, and I sensed the hanging pendulums begin to vibrate in response. Crawling to the table, I elevated my hand to her mouth and stopped her noise. I could feel the delicate bones beneath her mask of flesh.

“When was your last meal?” She shrugged, but I caught a tinge of woe that darkened her eyes. Holding on to the table, I lifted myself to a standing position and stalked to a shelf that held a number of antique metal boxes. Opening one, I took some gold doubloons from it, returned to her, and pressed the coins to her palm.

She wiggled her fingers so that the coins danced in her hand. “Pirate’s booty? How quaint.”

“What brings you to New England?”

She hesitated before answering, and then sighed heavily. “I was performing in an acting troupe, and we played in nearby Arkham.”

“You speak in past tense. Are you no longer with the company?”

“I have grown sick of shadows,” she recited, and then cocked her head in a curious way. “That’s from Oscar Wilde. I saw that you have the novel on that small shelf of books outside.”

I nodded. “What brings you to Kingsport, my lady?”

“The car I hitched a ride with is from here, so I pretended this was my destination. Once I saw the town I felt a kind of glow, a warmth within me. I think I’ve visited this place once, in a dream of mist and moonlight.” She rose out of the chair and raised one hand to my breast, as if to take hold of my heart, and I saw that she was little more than a child. Some tragic element in her being filled me with sudden sorrow, and I wanted to protest when, suddenly and silently, she glided from the cottage, into outer darkness.

Becoming aware of a subtle pulse of pain on my forehead, I sat in the chair, placed my elbows on the table, and buried my head in my hands. This main room inside the cottage had always worn an uncanny air, but there was a new element of strangeness now, and the lingering fragrance of lilacs. I reached out to smooth a finger against the cool glass of the tallest bottle, the one that the Terrible Old Man had called “Long Tom.” I smiled at the memory of my early years in Kingsport, when I had dropped out of the world and first began to camp on the comfortable porch of the obsolete cottage. The sea-captain seemed to welcome my presence, and soon he began to invite me inside his cluttered home and spin yarns about his journeys around the globe. My memory of him was crystal clear: the blue eyes that sparkled in a deeply lined face, the long white hair and beard, his olden way of talk and queer vocabulary. We would sit together at the table in the otherwise vacant room, and he would include his bottles in our conversation, calling them by name—“Jack” and “Peters” and “Spanish Joe.” I regarded those antique bottles and realized that the smallest, the one called “Mate Ellis,” was missing. A kind of panic swept over me. After the old man’s disappearance, I had felt a sense of duty, of watching over his habitation and keeping invaders at bay. Groaning, I stood and walked out onto the porch, grabbed my jacket, and stepped briskly out of the yard. A bright moon illuminated my way to the wharves, and on one dilapidated pier a phantom danced.

The horn of some invisible boat moaned in the distance. It was low tide, yet I could see that the water was quickly creeping toward shore. The water’s rhythm oddly matched the movement of my blood, and I could discern its relentless motion in my ears. The young creature’s ditty, too, seeped to my ears, the faint song of lunacy that blended with the baleful hooting of the distant horn. Reaching the wharf, I stepped onto its antique timber and felt as the entire thing swayed, coaxed by the movement of her dancing. Her scent of lilacs wafted to me. “Miss Ellis,” I whispered.

She stopped spinning and studied me from behind the dark veil that concealed her countenance once more. Her hands were wrapped around the small bottle, which she pressed against her bosom. “He called to me in dream, but I could never locate him. I was too young, too sane. Not yet claimed by our heritage of wanton madness. Yet the dreams always tugged, especially beneath the shifting stars of Arkham, and I finally found my way.” Holding the bottle up to lunar light, she studied its moving pendulum. “I’ve lost all my family, but I’m happy to have found him. He’s danced with me in dream, and kissed my eyes. What kind of wizardry was woven, I wonder, that spliced his soul to that small pendulum inside this bottle?” Looking upward to the moon, she sniffed. “Can you smell it, the rising mist over the water that washes toward us? Do you taste the water’s antique memories, of sunken ships and drowned souls? How wonderful to feel such kinship with others who have lost their way.” Her eyes regarded mine. “But maybe you cannot. Your mind isn’t wayward enough, I think. You haven’t dreamed deeply enough. Something inside you resists the marvelous things. And yet you insist on lingering here, in this realm of dark enchantment and spectral trance.”

“I sense it keenly enough. I choose not to partake. My wizardry is language, the spinning of poetry.”

“Poetry benefits from madness, good sir. Let’s drink of lunacy together, now.”

I could hear the waves of the encroaching sea. The sound of moving fabric filtered to me, as she began to dance once more, as one arm swung outward and hurled the bottle onto the rocks. She twirled and tittered, ignoring the murky shadow that formed over the place whereupon the bottle had smashed. I watched the thick wisps of blackness that coiled toward us, that enshrouded the entire pier. Her scent of lilacs was replaced with a stench of wretched death. I heard the disembodied moan that was not the horn of any vessel. The rotting wharf shuddered beneath our feet as ghostly tones vibrated in the helix of shadow, a masculine voice that uttered an old sea ditty that the Terrible Old Man and I used to croon to the bottles in times of happy drunkenness. I saw the pale and pretty face that moved toward me from the darkness, and so I called her name; but then I realized that, although it shared the young woman’s features, this was the visage of a young man. Sickly, he sang to me, and drifted to my face so as to kiss my eyes. I felt the wharf shudder more forcefully and heard it begin to break apart. Backing away, I raised my hands to the shadow in which I was sheathed and tried to find my way to land as waves began to sound more forcefully upon the rocks below us. The wood on which I staggered suddenly collapsed and I fell a second time that night, onto a bed of rocks, the sharp edge of one cutting into my forehead. I blinked through the tiny stream of blood that trickled into my eyes as the tide lapped at the legs that helped me creep to land.

Shadow lifted, melting into moonlight. Gasping, groaning, I twisted my head to look at where the ancient wharf had stood, and saw that it had entirely collapsed and dropped onto the rocks. I saw its remnants, and the various sharp-edged boulders, and the waves that washed over the debris of stones and timber. That was all. Then my attention was caught by some shining things that shimmered at one spot beneath the waves, and I saw that they were a handful of gold doubloons that caught the sheen of moonlight. A rising wind eddied to me from the water, on which I could detect a faint fragrance of lilacs.

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