W. H. Pugmire is a widely published and popular author of Lovecraftian stories, including the volumes Dreams of Lovecraftian Horror (Mythos Books, 1999), Sesqua Valley and Other Haunts (Delirium Books, 2003), and The Fungal Stain (Hippocampus Press, 2006). An omnibus of his collected weird fiction is forthcoming from Centipede Press.
awakened to the raucous cry of crows and pushed my torso away from the tree beneath which I had fallen asleep. Where the hell was I? I remembered deciding not to return to the halfway house where I was completing my time for three counts of bank robbery, after doing two years in federal prison. I think the prison officials let me out early because they were impressed with my intellect and good manners. I had been the first inmate on record who had requested a one-volume Complete Works of Shakespeare. I ain't no intellectual, but I've been raised by a woman who taught literature and art in college. One of my fondest memories was of my seventh birthday, when Mom took me to a thrilling production of Cymbeline, a play with which I was familiar from bedtime readings of Shakespeare since infancy. When I listen to or read Shakespeare, I hear my mother's voice. Loving the plays is loving her.
Yes, I screwed up. After her early death, I didn't care about anything, fell in with "bad types" and learned to enjoy petty crime. Drug addiction heightened my criminal tendencies, and I got hooked on danger. Doing time was no hassle. I read a lot of good books and improved my education. But the goons and clueless "therapists" in the halfway house were too insulting to be endured, and so I didn't return one day from job hunting, robbed a store from which I stole a couple of bottles of choice whiskey, hijacked a weakling's car and drove until the petrol ran out. After that things get a bit blurry, thanks to the booze. I sort of remember hoofing it for quite a while, and then stopping to rest after climbing a hill and entering a woodland. I guess I passed out beneath the oak tree.
It must have been early dusk when at last I came to my senses. The sky still held a quality of violet, and a low orange moon hung like some gigantic disc in heaven. I've never liked the way the moon looks at me, and so I threw my empty bottle at it; and then I noticed the other glow, the moving lamplight that slowly approached and became a lantern held by Jesus. This Christ was a tall red-headed dude with dark, penetrating eyes, attired in what looked like a suit from the 1920s. He stopped a few feet from me, and the moon directly behind his head looked like some illuminated halo as one sees in the works of Cimabue or Giotto. Moaning, I made an effort to stand up, becoming aware of the dampness at my crotch and the stink of urine. I began to laugh. "Drink, sir, is a great provoker, of sleeping and piss," I told Jesus, paraphrasing the Immortal Bard.
"Are you in need of shelter?" asked my savior.
"Shelter would be cool, good fellow," says me, struggling to my feet and working diligently to steady my sense of balance. The gentleman turned and walked away. Guessing that I was meant to follow, I stumbled through the growing darkness, passing a large sunken pond as I moved beneath and out of the mass of oak trees. We crossed a wide dirt roadway and approached a twostory building situated on the crest of a mammoth hill. Looking down the hill I saw a small town twinkling its lights as day expired. The building looked of the same era as the silent man's dress. Perhaps it had been some kind of hotel-cum-speakeasy in the Prohibition era. Why else would it be situated up here, so far from the rest of town?
Jesus led me into an anteroom that contained a couple of chairs and bureau on top of which were delicate bits of objet d'art. A stairway led to the second floor. We stepped through double doors into a charming sitting room filled with what looked like choice antiques. A brass chandelier softly illuminated the room, and one of the several small sofas looked especially inviting. I sat in it and sank into its comfortable depths. I saw that Jesus had abandoned me, and I assumed he had gone to fetch me a change of clothing. Leaning toward the low coffee table in front of the sofa, I grabbed hold of the large album of red leather that lay there, which turned out to be a heavy photo album.
My mother had taught art and literature to university brats, and so our home had been packed with quality books. I had delighted in pouring over those picture books when I was a kid, long before the text explaining the artwork was of interest. Mom had always encouraged me to be imaginative, and many of our games together, after father had left us, consisted of trying our hand at copying great works of art, our tools being color crayons, watercolor, and children's modeling clay. (My Play-do Pietà had been a deliciously somber affair.) Because I am by nature lazy, I never advanced in art or literature, although I had a modicum of talent. I was a curious and tragic combination of intellect and debauchery, and my high priest was Oscar Wilde. I was equally comfortable in either a museum of classical art or in the lowest mire of Malebolge. Art was one of my sanest obsessions. And thus, when I opened this oversized leather binder and began to study the photographs within, I was instantly mesmerized.
I recognized the first photograph as a kind of take on Caspar David Friedrich's Raven Tree; but instead of an actual tree the main focus in the print was an outrageously lean old guy with long hair and beard, who had contorted himself to mimic the shape of Friedrich's tree. The sky above the fellow was crowded with crows, one of which had perched on his scrawny shoulder. The photo's sepia tone suggested that it was an extremely old print.
Turning the leaf, I saw that the next photo was a wicked parody of the Mona Lisa. The ancient woman pictured, old and haggard though she be, still contained a degree of facial beauty. She had been a seductress in her day. The diabolic smile unnerved me, as did the hand that clutched one wrist, digging a talon into thin flesh. A single drop of blood upon that talon was the photo's one touch of vivid color.
The next photo was Jesus, posing with his lantern and attired with a gown of what looked like silken gold. Over the gown he wore an embroidered cloak, and a curious crown of metallic thorns adorned his dome. He was standing within the grove of oaks, knocking upon one tree. Unlike the two previous images, this one was new and full of color.
Ah, how I sighed when I turned the leaf and beheld the next image, for it copied my favorite painting, Fuseli's The Nightmare, and this photographic representation was superb. Where they had found a creature who so resembled Fuseli's incubus was beyond conjecture. There were, however, unnerving anomalies. The gremlin in the photograph was tragically incomplete, missing both legs and all its fingers. One stunted paw leaned against the thing's chin, near its mouth, and one could not escape the suggestion that the beast had been supping on its corporeal tissue.
The woman on whom the daemon squatted was dressed in white, as in the original painting, but her hair was dark and fell in such a way as to conceal most of her face. Unlike the original, her mouth did not frown. Above the woman and her incubus, to the viewer's left, an equine skull peeked through an opening in the curtain behind the bed.
I shifted in my seat, and the smell of my soiled pants drifted to me. Feeling restless, I shut the album and got up to investigate the room. Upon one wall was a large painting of an oak grove at nighttime. Arching over the trees was what looked like a pale lunar rainbow, and I seemed to remember some such effect in a painting by Friedrich. It certainly produced an eerie effect. Dim winged specks, which I took to be night birds, spotted the darkened dimension.
Sensing company, I turned to face the beings who were watching me. The woman, tall and slender, was dressed in a long black gown of antique silk, its tight brocade collar decorated with raised patterns in gold and silver. Gloves of black lace covered dainty hands, and a veil concealed the details of an emaciated face. I could just make out the pale and colorless eyes that observed me. She stood behind a ramshackle wheelchair that was occupied by the incubus from the photograph I had earlier been admiring. I stared at that impish visage with its sickly hue, at the yellow eyes and bulbous nose, at the blue veins that lined the grotesque face.
"Welcome to Wraithwood," the gnome sighed, in a high childlike voice. "Philippe has gone to find you clothing. You could benefit from a bath. Pera has a wee bathroom adjoining her room. Follow her, please."
"Thank you, uh . . . " I hesitated, not knowing how to address him, not wanting to shake the malformed hand. When I studied the right hand, I saw that it differed from the photograph, having two stunted fingers where in the photograph there were none.
"Eblis Mauran," he offered, bowing his head.
"Hank Foster," I said, smiling. The silent woman held a hand to me, then turned to a door near a corner. I followed her into a hallway and through another door that entered on a spacious boudoir. Undoing my shirt buttons, I watched as she went into a small bathroom and began to run a bath, sprinkling various salts from antique jars into the running water. I thanked her, but she said nothing as she ushered me into the bathroom and shut the door. I tested the water for heat, then undressed and stepped into the tub. The effect was instantaneous. My groans of pleasure rose with the steam as sore limbs and soiled flesh relaxed. I barely noticed when Jesus quietly entered with an armful of clean clothing, which he placed atop the closed toilet seat. I momentarily froze as he bent and placed a hand into the water, joined to it his other hand, then brought the hands above my head and let the cupped water drop over my hair. Smiling, he turned off the running water, rose, and vacated the room.
Okay, I thought as a scrubbed myself, I've entered into a house full of loonies and queers. Pulling the plug, I listened as the water drained, then stepped out of the tub and reached for a nearby towel. Examining the clothes, I saw that they were from an earlier decade; but they fit well enough, and I rather liked the way I looked in the full-length mirror, nothing like the alcoholic drug addict I had become since Mother's death.
I opened the door and entered Pera's dusky room. The place was semi-lit by various wall fixtures that resembled candles in holders, each candle topped by an electric flame. The furnishings were all dark, with long blue-purple drapery at the windows. A black bedspread covered the commodious bed. The young woman rested upon the bed, very still, resembling a lifeless husk on its deathbed. Her frail arms clutched a length of sturdy rope. I stepped to the bed and knelt next to it, as if I were preparing to pray for the soul of a departed loved one. I touched the rope, and her head moved so that the pale eyes behind the veil gazed into my own.
She then began to sing; and as I watched the vague impression of her mouth behind its curtain of lace, I felt a chill. The song was from my mother's favorite play.
"He is dead and gone, lady,
He is dead and gone;
At his head a grass-green turf,
At his heels a stone."
I was uncertain of what line actually followed, and thus I recited the line I knew. "How do you, pretty lady?"
Pera smiled and blew at the veil, and some of her soft sweet air lightly touched my face. Then she turned away from me and stared at the ceiling. I moved my vision to the painting on the wall above the bed. It, too, had been one of Mother's favorite works of art, John Everett Millais's Ophelia. This somewhat explained the strange girl's song. Looking at her again, I saw that her eyes were closed. Mutely, I vacated the room.
I was uncertain what way led to the main room, for there were doors on either end of the hallway. But then the sound of someone playing music in the room next to Pera's caught my attention. Through the partially parted doorway came a smell of incense. Gingerly, I pushed at the door with the toe of my shoe. A small man sat on the floor, playing a kind of Egyptian music on a shortnecked lute. I laughed silently, for the tiny guy closely resembled the Hungarian film actor Peter Lorre. The piece he played was simple yet expressive, and to its cadence danced the creature named Eblis. Dance, of course, is a generous verb, given that the fellow had no legs. And yet he was not clumsy as he stood upon his stumps and moved with a kind of nimbleness, now and then smacking together the palms of his fragmentary hands. The dancer noticed me and wickedly smirked, his ochrous eyes twinkling.
The music ceased, and Eblis moved to his wheelchair as swiftly as a scuttling insect. The other fellow observed me from his position on the floor. "Ah, the new guest."
"Yes," I answered, and then quickly corrected myself. "No, actually. I've had some trouble with my car a ways back. One of your compatriots found me sleeping in that grove of oaks and brought me here to clean up. So, what is this place, a hotel or something?"
"Or something. Just a collection of lost souls, you might say, gathered accidentally—fatefully." He shrugged and laughed. "So, the old crone hasn't had you sign yet?"
"Sorry?" He shrugged again and got to his feet, throwing his instrument onto the narrow bed. Seeing the painting above that bed I went to it and touched a finger to its surface. It was a painting rather than a print, although it had not been varnished. The image seemed familiar, but I couldn't place it. What interested me was that the sitter was almost a dead ringer for the small man who now sat upon the bed. "Wow, this could be you."
"Eventually it will be. I've already lost three inches of height." I gave him a troubled look, which moved him to more laughter.
"I've seen it somewhere before, but I can't remember the artist."
"Kokoschka. This is his portrait of a tubercular Count he met in, I believe, Switzerland. Once my face began to thin I took to parting my hair in the middle. My hands aren't quite as bad as his—yet."
What the fuck was he talking about? Yes, I had certainly stumbled onto a clutch of crazies. "The resemblance is quite uncanny," I continued.
"That's the very word. Come on," he said, standing and touching my arm. "We'll return you to the convening room."
I tried to smile as he loped to the wheelchair and guided it through the doorway. The door to Pera's room was partially open, as I had left it, and I caught a glimpse of her sleeping on the bed, the length of rope in her embrace. When I followed my new acquaintance into the drawing room, I found another person awaiting our arrival. She turned and smiled at me, and I saw that it was the woman in the Mona Lisa photo. Although ancient and vaguely sinister, yet was she anomalously lovely. Her streaked hair was long and smooth, and it was only her hands and face that bespoke of age. I saw that she held a book to her bosom, the crimson leather of which she tapped with a tapered fingernail. The woman walked toward me and examined my face with piercing blue eyes, and then she linked her arm with mine and guided me to the sofa. On the table before us, next to the photo album, was a small pot of ink and one of those quaint feather pens. Playfully, the elderly woman sat next to me and opened her book, which I saw was a registry with yellowed paper. A column of signatures filled one page.
"You seem down on your luck," the lady crooned.
Sardonically, I chuckled. "Hell, passing out and pissing myself ain't nothing new, if that's what you mean. As for luck, she's a lady I've never kissed."
Deeply, she sighed. "This edifice was built during the Prohibition era. It served as asylum for persons of fugitive nature." There was something funny about the way she spoke, as if from personal memory. "Asylum" was well chosen, I thought. I studied her face, and could believe that she had been a bonny lass in the 1920s. My kind of woman. Yet something in her words gave me pause.
"What makes you think of me as fugitive?"
"You wear a hunted aura. You are lost and hungry. We can give you shelter. You'll find it entertaining."
"Oh, we'll make use of you. Now," and she pointed to the column of names and picked up the feather pen. "I want you to sign your name here, and then we'll have Oskar find you a room. Hmm?" I looked at the Peter Lorre dude, who I supposed was Oskar, and he slyly winked at me. I paused. Everything seemed like some weird, crafty game. But the idea of a room sounded really nice. I was exhausted and hungry. This crazy pad would be far more comfortable and entertaining than anything I've been used to these past few years. What the hell? I moved my hand toward the pen, which the woman moved to my finger. Swiftly, the sharp point of the pen's tip nicked my flesh. I watched a drop of blood spill onto the feather pen's tip. With smooth dexterity the woman dipped the stained point into the wee container of ink, then placed the feather into my hand. My little drip of blood smeared her fingernail, which she tapped onto the yellowed paper.
"Your name, young man." I signed, then returned the pen to her. "Thank you . . . Hank," she said, examining my signature. "You won't mind if I call you Henry."
"That's cool," I told her, sensing that it wasn't a request. Suddenly quite weary, I yawned. The fellow named Oskar touched my shoulder. Rising, I followed him out into the antechamber and up the flight of stairs.
he room into which I was led was cosy, small yet quite exquisitely furnished with antiques. Sitting on the bed, I found it quite comfortable, and I smiled as Oskar moved to an end table on which were various decanters of booze. Standing, I went to join him and poured some excellent corn whiskey into one of the small heavy tumblers. I held the bottle to my guest.
"No, thank you. I prefer a little of this." He took up a bottle of sherry and filled his glass, then sipped quietly. I examined the room once more, until my eyes fell upon the painting above the bedstead. Going to it, I touched the unfinished work. "Ah," Oskar sighed, "your painting."
"This is none of mine—it's revolting!" It was an original work by an artist with whom I was unfamiliar. Of moderate size, the majority was a background of etching and under-painting, dreary in tone and subject. The setting was a wood, and from the sturdy branch of one tree a woman's form hanged from a length of rope, its snug slipknot taut around her broken neck. A length of dark hair entoiled her face. Beneath there stood three dark forms, indistinct and faded, mere specters of ink and wash.
But it was the cacodemonic thing leering prominently in the foreground that riveted my eyes to the canvas. I had never known a work of art to produce a sense of fear, but when I gawked at the painted thing, I trembled with fright. I suppose what terrified me was the absolute realism with which the ghoul had been conveyed; one could feel in the pit of one's soul the unholy appetite that smoldered in the rapacious eyes. The wide face had a kind of leathery texture, and the scraggly hair was clotted with dirt. Beneath the green eyes flared a wide, flat nose. Thick lips twisted so to reveal strong square teeth. This was the only figure in the work that had been fully painted, with such lifelike detail that one could almost imagine it to be a study from life.
"It's one of his unfinished works," Oskar informed me.
"Richard Upton Pickman, of Boston. An obscure artist, but one who has attained a spectacular underground reputation. A majority of his works were destroyed by his father, just before the old man's suicide in 1937. This is one of the incomplete pieces that were discovered in an old section of Boston that was razed and used as a site for warehouses. One of the antique dwellings was apparently used by Pickman as a secret studio." Draining his glass, Oskar set it on top of an antique dressing table that served as bedside stand, and opening the table's single drawer he took from it an old sketchbook. "I found these and the painting in a shop in Salem some years ago."
We sat on the bed and I took hold of the ratty sketchbook. "So you're one of his fans?" Oskar shrugged. I slowly flipped through the pages of sketchings. Pickman had a fine sense of line, but his subjects were nauseating, just as disturbing as the abhorrent painting. "Ugh," I moaned, "the guy was really obsessed with that image of the hanged woman. But it's weird, because in all these other sketches he's drawn a semicircle of jackal things that resemble the freak in the foreground. There's no working sketch showing the three, whatever they are."
Oskar took the booklet from me and spoke in a cautious kind of way. "Yes, I think the Three Sisters, as I call them, are original to this one unfinished painting. The one completed oil is hanging in a bookshop in a valley town in the Northwest, and it's magnificent. It shows the semicircle of that dingo brood."
I stood again and studied the painted ghoul. "I've never seen such nauseous colors in oil. They're ghastly. How the hell am I supposed to sleep with that thing drooling over me?"
"You must admit that it's unique, Hank. Pickman followed the now discarded tradition of composing his own pigments. The effects are startling, I agree."
He was flipping through the sketchbook when a photograph that had been wedged between two leaves escaped and fell to the floor. I picked it up and studied the cuss's ugly mug. "Is that him?"
My new friend nodded. "Taken just before he vanished."
I whistled. "Damn, he looks just as creepy as his artwork. He must have toyed with trick photography, no one could really look like that. What was his family background?"
Oskar took the photograph and admired it. "I once went to a showing of his work that was held at a disabled asylum in Arkham. The brochure mentioned that Pickman came from old Salem stock and supposedly had a witch ancestor hanged on Gallow's Hill in 1692."
"Ah, that explains his idée fixe. The hanged wretch is his greatgreat-granny." I watched as Oskar placed the photo back into the booklet and then return that volume to its drawer. Suddenly quite sleepy, I yawned.
"You're exhausted. You'll find some pajamas in that chiffonier. Pleasant dreams." Mischief played upon his sickly face, and I lightly laughed as he turned to cross to the door. He hesitated for a moment, as if there was something else he wanted to express; but he must have thought better of it, for he quietly opened the door and slipped from the room.
I went to the high and narrow chest of drawers and found a pair of bright yellow sleepwear. Whistling nonchalantly, I undressed, threw my clothes over a chair, and put on the very comfortable cotton nightclothes. The song of windstorm drew me to the room's one window, and going to it I peered at an eerie sight. The grove across the roadway was bathed in tinted moon light. High above it a pale band of illumination arched above the woodland, resembling the scene that had been crafted in the painting I had observed in the sitting room. I scratched at the window pane with fingernails, certain that the lunar bow had been painted onto the glass; but no flakes of paint rubbed off, nor was the surface rough with artistry. Wind raged just outside the window, and beneath its ululation I could just detect the irregular squawking of distant crows, such as I had heard earlier when Jesus had discovered me beneath the oak.
I yawned once more, found the switch that shut out the room's dim light, then climbed into bed. Looking up, I could just make out the dark shape of the ghoul in the feeble light that filtered through the window. "If I see you in my dreams I'll rip you to shreds," I promised the bogey, pulling the covers over me.
awakened to a sound that I took to be the moaning of the wind, until I realized that it was coming from the hallway outside my door. Had I in fact heard such a noise, or was it a revenant of dreaming? No matter. I had to piss, and so got out of bed and wandered into the shadowed hallway, hoping that there was a toilet on this floor. Spying a pale light coming from one narrow door, I went to it and saw that it was indeed a water closet. The toilet was a relic, and to flush it one pulled a hanging chain. I ran cool water over my hands and wiped those hands on my face and through my hair. Feeling refreshed, I re-entered the hallway, and seeing another door that was partially ajar, I sneaked to it and paused to listen. Someone inside was happily humming, and a smacking sound suggested feeding. I was hungry, and so I pushed the door with my toe and gazed at the room beyond.
The chamber was smaller than my own, with a modicum of furniture. Most of the walls were covered with wallpaper designed in black and red squares, but I saw that the wall space directly behind the bed had been painted red, except for one large black rectangle just above the headboard, where in every other room I had seen had hung a painting. In one corner, standing before a credenza, stood a tall figure with a shock of wild gray hair. He was bent over what looked like an antique casserole dish, from which he was plating a repast. When he turned to smile at me, I saw that it was the guy from the photo that copied Friedrich's Raven Tree.
"Enter, Hank Foster," he sang in a high nasal tone. "You must be famished. Here, take this, and I'll fill another plate for myself."
"Thank you," I said, taking the plate and examining the webbed meat and potatoes smothered with a kind of bechamel. The funny old guy motioned to a small table and two chairs, where two settings of sterling silver and napkins had been assembled. When my host sat down to join me I saw that his wide eyes were lined with red. Either he was a lunatic or flying some delectable high. Or a combination of both. Taking up fork and knife, he sliced his food with dainty precision, in continental fashion. Lowering my nose to the food, I took in its rich aroma. Gingerly, I cut into a piece of meat and popped it into my mouth. It was delicious, and suddenly famished I began to chomp. "This is great."
"'Tis our daily staple, so it's a good thing you like it. You'll get little else during your stay."
I didn't feel the need to correct his presumption of my staying around. Truth to tell, I hadn't given the outside world much thought since I arrived at this cuckoo nest. As if to qualify my thoughts, a cuckoo clock across the room struck five. "Is that the time?"
"Almost dawn. Sleep well?"
"Like a log."
"No dreams? No? Ah, lovely oblivion." He happily goggled at me, and I couldn't refrain from asking:
"Dude, what are you on?"
He hooted laughter. "What exuberant light shines in your eyes.
Ha, ha!" He raised a finger, floated out of his chair, and went to a small kitchenette with which his room had been equipped. Opening a cupboard, he took out a glass, which he filled with water at the small sink. "Rinse away your food, and then place this beneath your tongue." From his shirt pocket he produced a little tin, which he opened and from which he took out a small red tablet. Taking the glass, I did as he instructed. The tablet had no flavor, and I was amazed how quickly it dissolved.
"You'll want to catch a bit more sleep, I dare say. Do you like your room?"
"It's nice enough. That damn painting is a bit offensive." He merely smiled, not moving. I got up and went to investigate the wall behind his bed. The black rectangle kind of got to me. I thought I could detect subdued motion within its opacity. The little red pill was kicking in. "My Mom taught art at college. She died ten years ago."
"And you're all alone in the world."
"Yeah. It sucks," I bitterly replied. "I was so pissed at her dying on me that I rejected my fine upbringing, my stalwart tutelage. I thought I was so cool and daring, hanging with hoods and living on the edge." My voice grew quiet with self-pity. "I didn't know it would turn into this." I gazed into the blackness on the wall, at the liquid crimson that surrounded it. I could feel the wall drawing me forward. I tilted toward it and touched its surface, and laughed as my hand seemed to sink into the satanic shades. "Dude, this is some good shit."
"Let's return you to your chamber."
I took my hand from the wall and put my arm around his neck. "You freaks remind me of some of the cats that came to Mom's parties. You know, those eccentric arty types. Kind of makes me feel at home here."
He guided me to the door and out into the hallway. When we reached my room, I stopped and pushed my companion from me. "You should return to bed," he told me.
"No thanks. Don't want to look at that ugly mug in the painting."
"But it's your painting, Henry." I stopped and looked at him. My mother had been the only one to call me that name. To be so addressed by a stranger weirded me out. "What's your name, bud?"
"I am Pieter."
"Yeah. Well, listen, bro, I'm gonna go outside for a while and get some air. No, it's cool, I can see my own way out. Thanks for the grub." His face wore such a strange expression that, laughing, I patted it with my hand, then carefully found my way down the stairs, to the foyer or whatever the hell it was. Noticing that a light was on in the sitting room, I stepped into it to see if pretty Pera was there. Perhaps I could coax her into walking with me.
The room was vacant. I liked the way the dim light seemed to swim along the walls; but when I felt a sudden lightheadedness I decided to sit down for a spell on the comfortable little sofa, and seeing the shiny red album on the table, I grabbed it and set it on my lap. I opened it at the middle at sighed at the sight before me. The image was one with which I was familiar, for my mother used to have a print of it on her writing desk. The ghostly photograph copied Gustav Klimt's allegorical drawing, Tragedy. I traced the woman's outline with my finger. The original work had been composed with black crayon and pencil, white chalk and gold. The figure in the photograph duplicated exactly the pose of the drawing, of a woman holding a macabre mask. Everything in the photo, however, had blanched to a muted mauve and pale gray, blurry in outline. The one exception was the woman's spectral face, its whiteness quite luminous. I could just make out the woman's bouffant hairstyle and languid demi-mode deportment.
Hearing a noise, I looked up and saw Pera wheeling Eblis into the room. The gnome wore a sleeveless shirt, and I cringed at the sight of his too-thin arms, limbs that resembled those of some gaunt Auschwitz survivor. Closing the album, I staggered to my feet and skipped toward them. The dwarf's eyes were sickly yellow and red-rimmed. Blue and purple veins lined his expanded face with its bulbous nose. Cradled in his lap was a small oblong box.
I fell to my knees before him. "Yo, what's your trip?" Blinking fevered eyes, he tapped the wooden box with the black stump of what should have been a left hand. I looked at his malformed flesh, at the nub that looked as if it had been melted in some combustion. Reaching to the box, I opened it and took out one of the brown-black joints with which the box was stuffed. From his shirt pocket the little man produced a wooden match, held tightly between two stubby fingers. Swiftly, he struck it against the box and held the flame to me. I placed the reefer into my mouth and tilted toward the amber flame. I sucked, holding the inhalation for a minute and then let it slip slowly through nose and mouth.
The light in the room took on a golden hue. Trying to stand straight, I suffered a moment's vertigo and stumbled backward, colliding with the veiled and silent Pera, to whom I clung and with whom I crashed onto the floor. My face nestled in her hair. My nostrils took in the scent of her etiolated flesh. She offered no resistance as I held her down, and I fancied that I could hear her purring. My mouth pressed against her delectable neck, and my hand reached to pull the veil from her face. Savagely, Eblis flew from his chair and landed on me. A ragged nail from one malformed, sullied finger pierced my face, just below the right eye, slicing downward.
Cursing, I swung at the dwarf and screamed in rage, then tried to raise myself on hands and knees. A smell of blood assailed my nostrils, and a coppery taste slipped into my mouth. My hands reached out and clutched the beast's wild hair, and with all the force that I could muster I hurled him off me. The sound of his whimpering made me laugh and spit. The room was spinning, and so was I. Trying to stand, I fell on my ass. A shadow loomed above me, a scented phantom. It pressed its veiled face nearer to my own until I could taste the fabric. Underneath that veil I could feel the probing tongue that investigated the substance with which my face was stained.
awakened in my bed, but how I had gotten there I could not recall. Whatever I had ingested from the withered gnome's enigmatic weed, it had certainly had its effect. My throat still burned, as did my brain. Shades of eerie memory dimmed the recesses of my mind, specters that I could not mentally grasp. When I heard a peculiar sound from beyond my bedroom window, I pushed my numb body from the bed and staggered to peer out the windowpane. I saw the dark oaks of the distant grove, and thought that I could just make out a portion of the moonlit pool. I saw a dancing shadow. It was attired in some black flowing gown, but the naked arms and face seemed somehow to drink in the drenching moonlight. Cool air pushed against the pane, and so I opened the window and leaned my head out of it, toward the grove. Coldness brushed my new-made scar, and on that wind I thought that I could just detect the dancing figure's lullaby. Was it Pera? Had she also partaken of the narcotic, and was she now out there in the chilly night, high and prancing recklessly in the growing storm? I felt drops of rain splash against my face, and so I found my jacket and went outside.
Crossing the quiet roadway, I walked into the grove and toward the dancing woman. At first I could not understand what was wrong with her face, and then I realized that she wore a mask, one that had been held by the woman in the photo I had seen based on Klimt's drawing, Tragedy. Gold encircled her throat and arms, flesh that was semi-transparent. Beneath the sound of wind and rain I could hear her soft chanting to a tune that reminded me of Mahler, one of Mother's favorite composers. Storm clouds occluded the earlier moonlight, and yet I could see amazingly well, and it struck me as odd that the woman's clothing had not grown sopping wet, nor did water drip from the death-white mask. Seeming to sense that I was watching her, the figure stopped moving and stood very still, facing me, her hands now clutching at her crotch.
I advanced toward her, my eyes glued to her mask, which seemed the only substantial thing about her. I did not understand how I could vaguely see the trees and bushes that were behind her, could see through her. I was now very close to her, and I reached out to touch the mask, its bulging eyes and wide round mouth. A smooth limpid hand joined mine and seemed to blend its texture with my skin. Together, we touched the edge of the mask and lifted. I shut my eyes as something firm yet fleshy encased my face.
A violent force pulled the mask from my face. Jesus stood before me, frowning, the mask in his left hand. "Philippe," I said, remembering his actual name, and then I looked about us. "Where's Pera?"
"Inside, where you should be. We do not enter the wooded place at night."
"Nonsense, she was just here, wearing that thing."
"No." He tossed the mask into the pool. It floated for a moment, and then was gone. "Come, take my hand."
"Uh, that's cool, dude."
"My hand," he commanded, holding it to me. I reached out and took hold of his hand, wincing as his fingers tightened like a clamp. I wanted to stop and look into the pool, but my captor forcefully yanked me after him, out of the grove, into rain, across the road and inside the old motel. We stood scowling at each other. "Go to bed, Henry."
"Aren't you going to go fetch Pera? She'll catch her death out there. You must have seen her, she was standing right in front of me, beside the pool."
"That was Alma. Now, to bed."
"Fuck you, you're not my mother. Who's Alma?" Ignoring me, he turned and went into the parlor. I followed. "Who is Alma? I want to meet her."
"She's faded. Now, go to bed."
"What do you mean, faded? Like her photograph?" I stomped to the table and picked up the photo album. Turning to the image that copied Klimt, I studied the girl pictured, that very young creature. "Are you telling me that I saw a ghost? Is that your game, freak boy? I didn't imagine that stupid mask. Take me to her room."
Philippe sighed. "You grow tedious."
"Yeah? Well, I don't like your little game. Okay, don't show me. I'll find it myself." Again he sighed, then held out his hand. "Forget it, Mary. Just show me the way."
Did he slightly smile? He shut his eyes for one moment, then turned and walked to the door that led to the hallway. I followed him to the end of the hallway, where he stopped before two doors, opened one of them, and entered a tiny room. I walked to the small bed and looked at the wall behind it. "There's no picture. Come on, I've figured a few things out. Every room I've been in has had a picture above the bed. Except this one. Where is Alma's picture, the copy of Klimt?"
"It's been taken to the catacombs, of course."
Again, his subtle smile. We exited the room and he opened the neighboring door. Crossing the threshold, we came to a flight of small stone steps. Philippe reached for a lantern that sat in a cavity cut into the wall, took a lighter from his pocket, and nonchalantly lit the wick. Saying nothing, he descended. The place to which he led me was like some ancient religious grotto, but here it was art that was divine. Framed pictures hung on walls like objects of adoration. As Philippe began to light various candles, I went to a stone pillar on which there sat a small framed copy of Klimt's piece, beautifully copied in full color.
I looked around me, and the place seemed to contract, as if eaten by spreading shadow. My breathing became labored, and I cringed as blackness seemed to seep hungrily toward me. Gasping, I hurried to the steps and scrambled up them. Philippe eventually joined me and shut the door behind him. Removing a handkerchief from a pocket, he patted at the perspiration on my brow. Annoyed, I took the piece of cloth from him and roughly wiped my face.
"Tight places," I explained. He nodded, with such a smug expression on his face that I wanted to hit him. Instead, I strode across the hallway, past Pera's room and into the sitting room. Oskar was sitting on the sofa, placing a photograph into the leather album. Sitting next to him, I examined the photo, which was of him posed as the Count in Kokoschka's painting. I took the photograph, with which he was having difficulty, from his clumsy hands and slid it into one of the album's vacant sleeves. Then I took hold of the man's hand and examined its sulfur-yellow pigment. His face had also grown more discolored, and his sad hazel eyes had submerged within dark hollows.
"What the hell has happened to you?"
"The elder ones have worked their alchemy."
I was about to ask him more questions when he lifted his crippled hand and touched it to the scar on my face. My nostrils drank the sickened scent of his polluted flesh, the skin that reeked of death. Taking hold of that hand with both of mine, I pressed its fingers against my nose, my mouth. Something in its stench beguiled me.
"You look awful," he whispered as I touched his hand with my tongue. He took his hand from me. "Not sleeping well?"
Bitterly, I laughed. "Too many weird things are going on. Or so I imagine, although it could just be the freaky stuff that Eblis offered me last night. Or was it tonight? What day is it?"
He could not answer, for he suddenly jerked away, convulsed with hoarse coughing. Producing a piece of yellow cloth, he covered his mouth with it until the attack subsided. When he removed the rag from his mouth I saw that it had been sprinkled with beads of blood. "What the hell is wrong with you?"
Oskar waved away my inquiry. "You need not bother about me—take care of yourself." He stared into space, frowning, and I sensed that he was deciding whether or not to confide in me, to let me into his world. But then he stood and smiled down on me. "Get some sleep, Hank. You look half-dead."
"Not so fast," I yelled, grabbing his arm. "Damn it, explain what's going on in this godforsaken place. Look, I'm not an idiot. I can see the connections, the paintings in the rooms and the stills in that album. Now, I've just had a really freaky experience with Jesus." Oskar threw me an odd look. "With Philippe," I corrected myself. "I need to understand what I've stumbled on. Explain."
"Explanations are tedious. Understanding comes with the passage of time, but it won't really explicate anything. I'll tell you only this, that we have blurred the barrier betwixt art and nature, reality and dream. The outside world, the wretchedly bogus here and now, has no pertinence for us here. 'That bloody tyrant, Time,' scarcely touches us, and abhorrent modernity is utterly rejected. What was Pound's dull dictum concerning art, 'make it new'? Our aesthetic axiom is far more fascinating: 'Make it you'!" The reprehension that I felt deep within me must have been evident on my face, for Oskar began to laugh and shake his head. "Get some sleep, Hank."
I watched him leave the room. His coaxing seemed to have had an effect, for my eyelids were suddenly heavy. I stretched out on the sofa and closed my eyes. The man was clearly ill. TB was often regarded a quaint disease largely conquered by modern medicine, but I remembered having read of recent epidemics in various regions of the globe. It was an old contagion, for traces of tubercles had been discovered in mummies dating to 2000 b.c. Wanting to observe his photograph one more time, I reached for the album, propped it against my raised knees, and turned to Oskar's image. The original painting had been inspired by Kokoschka's stay at an institute in Switzerland, where the artist had painted the portraits of some tubercular patients. Although my eyes grew heavier and my mind hazy, I tried to study the photograph, to understand its connection to the original painting, to discern the relationship with Oskar's condition. My new friend had just hinted of a link, but what it was and how it existed was a mystery that I could not fathom.
I closed my eyes and began to sink toward slumber. As consciousness slipped from me, I remembered the sickly sweet aroma of Oskar's tainted skin, his delicious smell of moribund mortality. I felt the drool that lightly gathered in my mouth, that began to drip as wakefulness evaporated.
awakened in darkness and stretched on the comfortable sofa, and then I noticed movement in the room. Looking up, I whispered her name. "Pera." She lit a candle that leaned within a sconce, and then picked up the flaming thing and held it before her veiled face.
"You're not sleeping in your bed. You need to do so. That's the way it works."
Rising, I went to her and took the candlestick from her gloved hand. "The way what works?" I listened to her hiss of laughter, a sound that was not sane. Lightly, I touched her hair. "Why do you hide your face?"
She began to rock slightly, and I put a gentle hand to her waist. "It shields me from the world, the bright reality. The envious dark drifts to kiss my drab face, and I'll be wedded to a death's-head, with a bone in my mouth."
"This is crazy talk," I mumbled.
She stopped rocking and leaned her body against mine. I could smell the cool breath that washed my face. "You name me mad? Is this lunacy?" She slid her hand toward the candle's flame and pinched the fire out, then knocked the holder to the floor. Funny, even without light I could see her clearly. The fabric of the veil tickled my face as she lifted it and smoothed it over her dark hair. I gazed at her face, with its skin that radiated like burnished porcelain. The unnatural pallor made me suspect that Pera was an arsenic eater, as society ladies were wont to be in distant eras. I had heard of dwellers in the mountains of southern Austria who consumed arsenic as a tonic, building up a tolerance for ingested amounts that would normally prove fatal. The world was filled with freaks, and I had stumbled into a realm of mutation, physical and mental. What worried me was that I was feeling more and more at home.
I pressed my nostrils against her temple and took in her mortal fragrance, never having smelled someone who aroused such odd longings within me. Her sudden deep laughter chilled me. "Pickman is a potent warlock. You're already altered." Ignoring her senseless prattle, I moved my face to her throat and raised my hands so as to fondle her breasts. Her sheathed hands took hold of my face and raised it to her own. Oh, how ghostly pale she was, so much so that I fancied I could vaguely see beneath her lucent hide to the bone of her delicate cranium. Her hands wound into my hair and tightened. Her mouth exhaled into my eyes, and vision fogged. I let her go and rubbed my face with hands that trembled. When again I looked at her, the veil had been dropped. Her hands took hold of mine. "To bed, to bed. Come, come, come, give me your hands. What's done cannot be undone. To bed."
I raised her hands to my mouth and kissed them. "Not yet. Show me some other rooms."
"Whatever for?" she asked, with an inflection that hinted of regained sanity. "Most of the rooms are vacant."
"Because their dwellers are faded?"
"Ah," she purred. She wouldn't move, and I suddenly began to feel like a cat's-paw. Disconnecting our hands, I walked into the foyer and up the stairs, the silent woman following me like some shadow. Reaching my floor, I went to try one of the many doors, but found it locked. The next door I tried yielded to my violence, and I entered an untenanted chamber. The painting over the bedstead was dimly lit by the rays of moonlight that drifted through the window. I went to it and touched the canvas. The dashingly handsome figure was familiar, and after a moment I remembered the original work that it copied, a Titian showing a young man in black, one hand naked, the other gloved and holding the glove that had been removed.
Pera stood beside me, then she quietly climbed onto the bed and placed her hand to the necklace worn by the painted figure. "They wanted to put him down in the catacombs, but I said nay. He'll not dwell in that darkened crypt, that place of death. Isn't he beautiful? So young." She reached for a varnished box that sat upon a stand. Opening it, she took out a red necklace identical to that worn by the lad in the painting. Kissing it, Pera clutched it to her chest as she lowered into the bed and curled into a fetal position.
Silently, I slipped out of the room and went to my own. I undressed and got into bed, kneeling on the mattress and studying the Pickman. The fellow's green canine eyes absurdly seemed to return my gaze. When at last I reclined, I saw those eyes in my dreams.
When my eyes opened to the glare of daylight streaming through the window, I heard from outside that window the song of laughter. Pushing the covers from me, I sat in bed and saw the plate of covered food on my bedside stand. I removed the cover and found some slices of the odd webbed meat that Pieter had offered me earlier. I wasn't very hungry, but I picked up a slice and began to eat. Standing, I wobbled to the window and looked out toward the oak grove, which was filled with moving figures. Were the freaks having a picnic? I found the idea slightly sinister, and that rather attracted me, for I was feeling bored. I dressed and went to join in the fun.
The light of day stung my eyes, and everything was thus a bit out of focus as I sauntered across the road toward the wooded place. Most of the faces were familiar, but there were three persons to whom I had not yet been introduced. The youngest, dressed in rather dandified Victorian garb, leaned against a tree, and something in her pose and the style in which she wore her flame red hair was familiar. A few yards from her, standing at an easel, a box of brushes and tubes of paint on the ground beside him, was Pieter. I went to study his canvas and saw pinned to its top left corner a small black and white picture.
"Isn't that Swinburne?" I ventured, watching the old guy copying the wee image in watercolor, blending the poet's facial features with those of the ascetic girl beside the tree. It was she who, frowning at me, spoke.
"Who hath known the ways of time
Or trodden behind his feet?"
"Whatever, babe," I threw at her, disliking her haughty attitude. "So, you're copying, um, Burne-Jones . . . ?"
"Nope. Rossetti, painter and poet. Interesting, isn't it, how many artists have also been rhymers?" He worked his brush with dexterity and aptitude, and suddenly an idea flashed in my brain.
"Hey, those paintings above the beds . . . "
Mocking meekness, he bowed his head. "Most of them are mine own. The Pickman in your room is an original. I've touched it up a little, to bring out the beast."
"That explains it," I cheerfully replied. "I was wondering why the ones I was familiar with didn't look quite right. You've blended the original sitters with models of your own, as you're doing now. That's kind of cool." I did not mention that I thought it a dubious practice to "touch up" another artist's work.
Leaving him to his labor, I went to join Pera, who sat beside the pool of water, a petite parasol protecting her from sunlight. Absentmindedly, she dipped her hand into the bunch of pretty flowers in her lap. "Playing her part to the full," I thought, although when I saw the expression in her eyes beneath their veil I reconsidered. She gazed at me with eyes that were wide and lunatic, but also so sad that I grew quite melancholy. Tenderly, I took up a bloom and tossed it into the murky water.
Oskar came to join us, sitting next to the pool and staring into its depths with an odd expression shifting the features of his yellow face. When I asked if he was feeling well, he merely smiled and shrugged, then dipped his hand into the pool and raised a handful of cupped water to his crown. I watched the water dribble down his features. Pera reached out to his wet face and began to dry it with her glove. Oskar took her hand and kissed it, then turned to watch an approaching figure.
"The Mistress approaches," Oskar whispered.
I studied the crone as she stalked toward us, then smiled as she held a boxlike contraption and pointed its covered lens to us. Pera turned away, but Oskar stared, transfixed, as the witch removed the brass covering from the lens. I heard the squawking of crows in the trees above us and imagined that the light of day subtly subdued. Quickly, the cover was snapped back into place. The old hag's mirthless laughter unnerved me. I did not like the way she investigated my facial features as she placed her camera or whatever it was on the ground and untied the piece of black fabric that encircled her throat.
"It's time to play, my sprigs," she cackled. Slowly, steadily, everyone except Pera stopped what they were doing and walked to the elderly woman, encircling her. I was the last to stand and join their circle, standing next to Oskar and a woman I had not yet been introduced to. The ancient beldame stepped to Oskar and wrapped her ribbon so that it covered his eyes, tying it behind his head. She led him to the center of our circle, then joined our number.
We did not join hands, but everyone began to hum in a low, nearly inaudible way, and our circle began to rotate slowly. As we moved around him, Oskar reached into the air as if ready to touch our faces. At last he reached out and touched the face of one of the women I did not know. He said her name, and she laughed as she untied the band from around his eyes. Above us, the cry of crows mingled with her laughter.
Oskar skipped to me and clapped. "My turn to choose, and you're it, Hank." I wanted to protest as he pulled me to the center of the circle and began to tie the ribbon 'round my head. "Do be a good sport, old boy," he requested, and so I stopped fidgeting and let him finish. My attention was focused on the smell of his jaundiced flesh and its effect on my appetite. He tied the knot and began to take his hands away, but I clasped mine over them and pressed them to my nose, my mouth. He allowed me to savor his mortality for a few moments, and then he sighed, "Do let go, there's a good lad."
I sensed him walk away from me, and then I heard the sound of humming encircling me. Feeling slightly foolish, I raised my hands and, although I couldn't see anything, shut my eyes. I thought that I could feel a faint and shifting radiance on my hands, as if globes of soft auras pirouetted before me. Pitching forward, I grasped a face. The atmosphere grew still and silent. My fingers investigated the invisible visage; they felt the thick nose and full lips, lips that flexed so that my fingertips played against large square teeth. Thick stubble, almost a beard, covered the chin. Was it Philippe? Had he shortened his beard and I not notice it? I moved my fingers along the face and felt the ragged scar beneath the right eye, and on my other hand I felt the heat that emitted from a mouth that mocked with easy laughter.
Cursing, I ripped the band of cloth from before my eyes, and then cried in fright as a winged shadow fluttered before me, squawking risibility. The crow's beady eyes stared directly into mine as I felt the wind of its flapping wings. And then it vanished to join its comrades in the boughs above us. I stood in the center of the circle, looking at the faces that were all too far away for me to have touched.
Thunder rumbled in the distance. The circle broke up and my companions moved away. Eblis, who had not been a part of the circle, jumped out of a tree, landing near Pera. She arose and held onto the handles of his wheelchair as he leaped into it, maneuvering his stunted torso with hands, like some malformed monkey. I stood beneath the trees and listened to the sound of birds moving among the branches. I heard the patter of rain on bark and leaves, drops that slipped between those leaves and fell into the nearby pool. I looked at the others, who had crossed the road and were entering the building as Oskar held its door open for them. He stood there alone for some time, gazing at me, and then he waved and went inside.
A loud clap of thunder shook me from my mental void. I leaned against a tree and closed my eyes. My sharp hearing took in the sounds of storm, of moving shadow. The world was alive with sound such as I had never experienced. Pushing away from the tree I passed the pond and peered into its water, not understanding the spheres beneath its surface, those pale globes that seemed almost to watch me.
I ran through the rain, into the building, and stepped into the drawing room. The tiny lights of the brass chandelier spread dim illumination through the room. Stopping before the painting of the oak grove, I examined it with interest. I saw that the "rainbow" was not actually white but rather a mixture of pale yellows and greens. The same wan green glowed among the numerous brown clouds. My eyesight oddly blurred as I stared at the thing, and that painted mass of nubilation seemed to billow and convulse, its patches of pale green reflecting a kind of alien light.
Turning away, I rubbed my eyes and listened to the frail music that issued from some distant place. I stepped into the hallway and passed Pera's closed door, approached the door that opened onto the catacombs, and crossed its threshold. I needed no light as I held my hand against the rough-hewed wall and climbed down the small stone steps. Curiously, my discomfort for small dark places had deserted me. Glancing to where the whistling music was coming from, I noticed a doorway cut into the basalt, into which a squat round door had been fitted. Beside the wall leaned the dented wheelchair. Cracking open the door, I peered into an incommodious cell.
Eblis sat upon a squalid mat, looking like some troglodytic chimera, a plate of food before him. He watched me enter his domain as he put a slab of webbed meat to his mouth and tore into it with diseased teeth. Oskar stood in one corner, facing the wall as he played some flutelike instrument. Ignoring both of them, I went to examine the dark painting above the goblin's mat. Unlike the others, it did not represent another artist's work. Rather, it was a simple representation of Eblis Mauran in his wheelchair, the knobs that were his hands in his lap.
Oskar killed his music and turned to face me.
"Tell me about Pickman," I ordered.
"Not much to tell. He disappeared in September of 1926, after an unsuccessful career as an artist in Boston."
"Why did he paint his chosen subjects?"
"He was attracted to the macabre. Who can explain why? Tell me why Goya's mood so darkened that he ended his career with the so-called Black Paintings. What moods arrested Poe and Baudelaire so as to produce their diabolic lore? Hmm?"
"Stop being precious and tell me about Pickman."
"Henry, there's little to tell. Like Goya, his mood darkened near the end of his life, fueled perhaps by his lack of luck in being able to exhibit and sell his paintings. People were turned off by the image of the morbid changeling that kept appearing in his work, that became his whoreson theme. People felt abused when looking at his art."
"I'm sure they did."
"Look, I'm busy. Eblis has a session with the Mistress. Good day." So saying, he exited the room and picked up the old wheelchair, carrying it away.
I frowned at the goblin, then turned my attention once more to his painting. It was a large work in an ancient frame and seemed quite accomplished. And then I noticed the hands that nestled in the painted figure's lap, the nubs of which were both fingerless.
The gnome's plaintive voice spoke. "Master Pieter painted it just after I was woven."
I looked down at him. "I don't understand you."
"The Mistress grants me a new addition tonight." He held up his arms and smiled. "Will you carry me?"
I tilted to him and he scrambled into my embrace. His tiny arms wound around my neck, his large sad face fell onto my breast, and suddenly there were tears in my eyes. I could taste his loneliness. I carried him up the steps and into the hallway, then placed him into his wheelchair, which awaited him. He thanked me in his high and childlike voice, and I followed as he wheeled himself down the hallway and into the parlor. As I watched the tiny creature work his chair, something that Oskar had said about Pickman reverberated in my head. Oskar had described the creature in Pickman's painting as a changeling. Watching Eblis, I was certain that the word exactly described him: a secret child, unwanted in this world.
I followed Eblis to a door, which I opened for him. The crone sat at what looked like a prehistoric spinning wheel. In her left hand she held a moist mass of flesh, which she worked into the spindle and pulled through the outlandish device. I watched as the stringy meat was twisted and wound into a thread of glistening brawn. On a nearby table sat a shallow metal bidet in which a pile of the fibrous stuff had been tossed. Beside that mass of meat lay a large silver tray on which some of the flesh, woven together, was piled, ready to be eaten.
Seeing us, the old woman stopped her work and stood. "Ah, Henry, welcome. Will you have some opium?" Reaching for a pipe, she brought it to her mouth and lit the bowl. She sucked loudly and closed her eyes. "'Tis an old blend, from Burma. It will soothe your troubled mind."
Saying nothing, I took the pipe and drew on it. I watched as she sat in a chair next to the metal bowl, reaching for the gnome, who hastened to her lap. Deftly, she took up a pair of slender steel knitting needles, implements with which she worked a length of fibrous flesh into the hand on which Eblis wore two digits. My gut twisted as I watched her work, moving the needles into his flesh, her hands stained by spilling blood. Eblis neither screamed nor squirmed, and when at last he held to me his gory limb, I saw that the hand now wore a newly formed third finger. I sucked deeply on the pipe and held the smoke, and then I began to laugh, because I knew that I was dreaming.
utside, the storm had passed, and the sky was fairly clear. I walked to the crest of the hill, my mind and soul at peace. Knowing that I was dreaming gave me a longing for adventure, and so I began to follow the road down the hill, walking toward the dark and silent town. Just on the periphery of the sleeping hamlet I came upon a small cemetery crowded with willow trees, a place that looked so peaceful that I decided to investigate its weathered stones. And then I was startled by what sounded like a low harmonious wailing. Beneath a willow, standing around a barrow of stones, were three women dressed in black. I could not understand why they looked familiar, but then I remembered that I was dreaming, and so I ceased trying to make sense of these new phantoms. Boldly, I went to them and picked up one large rock that sat atop the mound. It felt very real, cold, and heavy.
The woman nearest walked to and joined me in holding the rock. I sucked the air through my nose, hoping to smell her mortality, but no fragrance wafted to me. She was a phantom indeed. Softly, she began to sing, and as her beady eyes observed me, I fancied that her song was meant for me. Taking the rock from her, I stepped closer to the pile and returned the rock to its place on top.
"I've never seen anything like this. I suppose whoever lies beneath must have died long ago."
"Long, long ago," the woman sang. I did not move as she came nearer, as her hand raised and began to investigate my face. I did not flinch as her talon poked into my scar and reopened it. I could smell the wet red stuff that began to leak down my face. Funny, I'd never experienced a sense of smell when dreaming, or of touch. Roughly, I grabbed hold of the woman's hand. She was real enough.
"What's happening to me?"
"You were lost, and now are found," the woman sighed.
I pushed her from me and looked again at the mound of stones. "For whom do you warble?"
The woman motioned to the mound. "For our antecedent. For them who float in Wraithwood. For you."
I shut my eyes and began to laugh. I could feel my high wearing off, but I was high enough to imagine that I could hear the sound of beating wings, and the noise reminded me of a line from Poe:
"Flapping from out their Condor wings
When my eyes opened, I stood alone on the cemetery sod. Above me I could hear the crying of crows as they flew upward, toward Wraithwood.
I whistled loudly and sucked in necrophagous air, a hungry aether that sank beneath my pores and chilled my soul. How soft seemed the ground beneath my feet. Falling to my knees, I clawed into that earth and brought a handful of it to my nostrils. My mouth began to water. I felt an overwhelming intensity of hunger, and in some dark secluded mental place I dreamed an image of myself digging deep into this chilly sod in search of sustenance. A memory came to me of the weird webbed food I had been served at the hotel. I craved it now. Rising, I walked out of that place, following the road upward, toward home.
All lights inside had been extinguished, and yet I could see wonderfully well when I entered the building. I had planned on going straight to my chamber, but when I heard a low murmuring within the parlor, I went to its doors and crept inside. A figure paced the room, babbling to herself. A gloved hand, through which two pointed fingernails had ripped, madly clutched the face beneath a lacerated veil. How keenly I could smell the blood that stained her face! I went to her, unable to comprehend the thing that hung from her mouth until I was very close. The crimson necklace that was a copy of the one in the Titian painting was clenched between the teeth of a tightened jaw. And still she tried to babble.
I unfastened the torn veil and let it drift to the wooden floor. Her hand shot up to scratch her face, but I held it tight so as to block the nail from slicing once more into the emaciated skin. Touching my fingers to her mouth, I gently pulled the necklace from her teeth, catching a spill of drool with my cupped hand. When again she muttered, I understood her words.
"I know when one is dead and when one lives; he's dead as earth." She took the ruddy necklace from me and swung it before our eyes. "Why should a dog, a rat, a witch have life and he no breath at all?"
"Of whom do you speak, kind lady? I did not find his likeness in the album. Where is his photograph?"
The woman tilted her head and examined me with lunatic eyes. Raising her hands above me, she slipped the necklace over my head. With one hand, she tightened it around my neck. When I began to have trouble breathing, I clawed at her hands and pushed her from me. Tittering, she fled the room, and I followed to her bedchamber, where I found her lighting a candle on a bookshelf that she had littered with various bric-a-brac. I noticed the gilded frame before which she swayed. Going to her, I examined the glossy sheet of paper within the frame. At first I could discern no image, but the more I studied it in the flickering light, the more I could almost make out an imperceptible and spectral outline. "Is this your young man?" I asked, touching the frame. "Is he the young man in the Titian?"
"The Titian," she spat, in a voice that sounded coherent and sane. "He was young, wasn't he? Not yet nineteen. And so beautiful. I take flowers to him, to his shining face. I shall soon answer his summons." She shuddered and wrapped her arms around her shoulders. Turning to me, she tugged at her collar. "Pray you, undo this button."
I worked the buttons loose, then took the candle and led her to bed, setting the candle on the little bedside stand. Her face was smeared with dark blood that had seeped from her self-inflicted wounds. "I'll be right back," I promised, and then I went to her bathroom and threw a washcloth into the small porcelain basin. I turned one of the brass-spigots and let cold water flow onto the cloth, and as I waited I glanced at my reflection in the mirror. This reminded me that I was dreaming; for how could I see my face so clearly in an unlit room, and how could that reflection be mine own? I hadn't seen myself since my arrival to the motel, and so it should not have surprised me to see the growth of hair upon my face. But why was the bristle so thick, and how had my face grown so wide? Could those broad lips be mine, those large square teeth that almost protruded from the mouth?
No, this was all some mad hallucination, for only in a dream could my visage so alter as to resemble the ghoul in Pickman's painting. I thought of Oskar and his similarity to the figure in the painting above his bed. This was naught but mad delusion. And yet, when I reached for the cloth and wrung the excess water from it, I could feel the cold wetness so vividly. Returning to Pera, I washed the congealed blood from her face as she sat on the bed and stared at the flame. When I had finished, she took the rag from me and pressed it to the scar beneath my eye. Our mouths were very close, and I could smell her breath.
Dropping the washcloth to the floor, Pera picked up the candle and placed it between our mouths. "Put out the light," she whispered, "and then put out the light." My tongue, coated with saliva, licked out the tiny blaze. I took the candle from her and set it down, then reached to undo more buttons on her blouse. We sat in deep darkness, and yet I could see her, and even fancied that I could just make out the skull beneath her thin translucent skin. Together we reclined. She took hold of the necklace around my throat and spoke a stranger's name. I wrapped my hungry arms around her meat and shut my eyes. I dreamed within my dreaming, and those dreams were of dark cemetery sod, and of the carcasses beneath the earth. How piquant was the smell of that soil and its inhabitants! And mingled with their odor I took in the sweet fragrance of the lunatic in my arms.
But when the morning light fell on me from the window in her room, I was alone. And when I went to that window to seek the source of singing that I heard, I saw the figures that stood within the grove, encased by dawn's dim light. Crying, I fled the room and rushed outside, running across the road and into that grove. When I saw the figure hanging from a length of rope that had been fastened to a sturdy branch, I fell upon wet grass.
Someone called my name, and I turned to face the crone. She was pointing her camera device at me, nodding her head in approval. Cursing her, I turned once more to look at the woman hanging from the tree, at the three other women who stood underneath her and wailed harmoniously. Eblis was suddenly beside me, touching his three fingers to my face and nodding his happy head. I watched as he scampered to the tree and began to scuttle up it, like something in a Kafkaesque delirium. Oskar and Philippe now stood beneath the corpse and took hold of it as Eblis gnawed the rope around the branch. The body fell as the wailing trio blurred into one cloudy entity that rose to hidden branches, from which there came the squall of crows. I watched as the men took her body to the pool and gently tossed her into its water. In dream, I saw her dead hand gather a bunch of flowers that floated in the water next to her, and I sighed as she chose one lovely bloom and held it to me. Creeping to the edge of the pool, I reached for the flower that she offered me, and by chance I peered into the water, at the shining spheres that frolicked just beneath her. I saw the one pale globe that rose to kiss the back of her neck, that moved its mouth as if to name her. At the touch of his tender kiss, my lucent beauty smiled, closed her eyes, and sank into the water's depths.