Book: Black Wings

Previous: Substitution
Book main: Foreword


Jason Van Hollander

 

Jason Van Hollander's fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Weird Tales, Fantasy and Science Fiction, and other publications. His macabre artwork adorns books published by Arkham House, Golden Gryphon Press, Subterranean Press, PS Publishing, Tor Books, Night Shade Books, and Ash-Tree Press. He has illustrated books and stories by Thomas Ligotti, Fritz Leiber, Ramsey Campbell, William Hope Hodgson, and Clark Ashton Smith. He has won an International Horror Guild Award and two World Fantasy Awards.

 
 
usie, anguished with the burden of a thousand Unborn, curses the frailty of human life as Doctor Farnell clamps cool fingers around her chin. "Sip slowly," urges the physician in a voice devoid of emotion. "We can add sugar to the next dose." He lowers the fluted glass. "Your sister has been asking about you," he adds.

  Alkaloid bitterness spirals down her gullet. Sitting up is difficult. The single pillow, which is too thin, slips down the headboard of the hospital bed. As the nurse fluffs the pillow Susie licks her lips, sifts through unfamiliar memories. Sister? Her thoughts are mazy. The little one under the earth? "Emeline?" she wonders aloud. "Didn't she die when she was six?"

  Her query floats away unanswered. Doctor Farnell taps her wrists, which she notices are bound with surgical gauze. Even through the miasmas of delirium and the lingering effects of anesthesia the doctor's expression is troubling. Unmanageable anxieties banished her to this Gothic Revival Palace of Moan, whose inmates roam the halls, shuffling in slippers, lost in the folds of ill-fitting stained frocks.

  Eventually the nurse explains, "Tomorrow your sister wants to visit."

  "Lillie Delora? Annie?"

  "One of your sisters."

  Susie's bewildered response: "Which one am I?"

  Her unanswerable question drifts beyond the curtains drawn around the bed. A late May breeze, sea-scented, mixes with the acrid scent of carbolic acid that wafts down the women's infirmary of Butler Sanatorium. Other than Susie and the doctor and the portly nurse, the ward is unoccupied. Shivering, the dying woman squirms. Her bedclothes and sheets are damp with sweat. Doctor Farnell leans closer, manipulates her eyelids, gawks as if peering deeply into unfathomable pools.

  "What about your son—didn't you say he's some sort of astronomer?" asks the physician. "Surely a star-gazer would want to gaze upon his mother during her convalescence. Surely he intends to visit."

  "He is a poet of the highest order," Susie hears herself say. "But he is too frail to visit, too sickly. His appearance . . . he really doesn't like to walk upon the streets."

  "Is there some sort of infirmity?" inquires the doctor.

  "He must avoid places where people could stare at him. Illness . . . and the constellations . . . accentuate the deformity. The hideous face"—she pauses to catch her breath—"when the hostform sickens the displaced identity surfaces. And the host form dissolves. This is why I'm here, this is what is happening to me."

  A flicker of understanding passes between nurse and physician. Exhausted, Susie closes her eyes.

  "The fever will break," F. J. Farnell avers in a medical man's voice that is heartless and reassuring at the same time. "Depend on it: the surgery was completely successful, the obstruction removed, the biliary colic resolved. Get some rest. Get some sleep. Palliatives will be provided."

  Susie opens her eyes. Her vision is blurred. The nurse seems to be proffering an empty glass; the edges shimmer. An unconvincing simulation of a smile mars the physician's face as he intones: "The tincture is efficacious but it clouds the mind. Nurse Grady will try to remember to sugar the next dose."

  "My head aches." Susie—the unusurped portion—tries to gather her thoughts. "Everything is collapsing. Years ago my husband collapsed. My child will collapse. How will we manage, how will we fare? Our situation is dire . . . ."

  "It's the fever. When it breaks you'll feel better."

  "I will live only to suffer," Susie whispers as the doctor swirls through the curtains. Her statement is objective, not a contradiction. Human ingenuity is insufficient. The doctor and his medicaments are primitive, the nurse is impertinent, traipsing in and out of the curtained partition with her sour Sapphic glower.

  The dying creature shuts human-seeming eyelids, tests the failing sensorium. Listens to the click-clack of cleats of highbutton shoes on floors of tile and marble. Inhales institutional odors: green soap, floor-wax, ammonia. Disinfectant.

  Nurse Grady returns, brandishing the fluted glass. It glistens with opium and water and spiraling granules of sugar that are magically descriptive, nebular, galactic in implication. Flushed, the nurse fidgets, sputters, "Don't think I'll be forgetting the terrible things you said to me, what you accused me of yesterday!"

  "You are the heavyset nurse. The one who bathes me."

  "Accusing me of . . . improprieties. When all I did is what I'm paid to do: a sponge bath for patients that sweat through their gown and dirty themselves."

  "You touched me. Your hands lingered," Susie reminds the porcine woman.

  "All I did was to perform my duty as a nurse."

  "You kept staring at my nakedness."

  "Your belly-skin had tattoos, symbols in strange colors, scurrying around like beetles. Especially near the sutures. And someone put furry boots on your legs. They looked like goat-feet."

  Susie stared at the ceiling, warding off realizations. "Is my body changing?" she wonders.

  "By the time the ether wore off . . . by the time you stopped vomiting, the tattoos vanished. I don't know how you got rid of the boots. Maybe it was some sort of trick. Anyhow," huffs the nurse, "I was just performing my duty as a nurse."

  As evidence the porcine woman points at her uniform, which is starched, unnaturally white, overbright in the sunlight slicing through the bars of the sanatorium windows. Silicated, decides the efficiency that is fused with Susie. "When you washed the hostbody, your hands lingered," avers the pluralized Susie. "You caressed the host-body."

  "Lookie, Missus. I don't never touch the Host except when the priest places it on my tongue."

  "You touched this flesh." Susie, unable to move, gestures with her chin. "The flesh of this body."

  Abruptly the nurse throws open the curtains, muttering, "Godless and raving sick in a madhouse, and I'm justifying myself to her."

  Shanty-Irish sow. The human insult, a regional construction, flits through Susie's overmind. Communication is futile, a distraction. As the dying body lurches there is a sense of gauze tightening on wrists. This is because hands and ankles are bound to the hospital bed. Two thrashes confirm constraint. Her slender fingers clench the sheets. Suddenly she comprehends that the host-body is wracked with pain from the surgery. Just for a second the steely intention in front of Susie's mind unclamps. "This husk is in agony," she gasps. "Help me!"

 

...

 

he hospital bed is equipped with a rubber pad to protect the mattress. Nonporous, the pad repels moisture, spew, discharges, fluids. By preventing evaporation the unyielding rubber pad promotes perspiration. This is why Susie's sheets are sweat-damp, her gown sweat-sodden. Her temperature climbs. Delirium convinces her that the pad and length of her body form a human-skinned flying carpet. Over Providence she soars, lying on a mesh of discontinued selves. Surcease is a formula etched on the aethers, magically descriptive, nebular, galactic in implication. Her many-selved mind aches with pluralized yearnings. How many selves crouch and hide in the swirling formulae?

  Ideations, viscid geometries, larval letterforms.

  Strands of her consort are woven into this carpet of dreams. Winfield, animalistic whiskers sprouting from his upper lip. His illness was the illness of this accursed planet, which crawls with absurd cavalcades, husk armies, ritualized and valueless spawnings . . . while her Thousand Unborn swirl in the aethers like the spindrift of Eternity.

  In the midnight hospital room the dying entity jolts awake. The plight of her Unborn Brood knifes into her. Her helplessness is unbearable. To open time she summons a tangible ideation of her consort and bleats Iä! Iä! Iä! without uttering its truest name.

  Proceeding into the room is a crowd-sized tangle, mostly Winfield, partly the Butler Hospital room in which he died, partly the unnamable efficiency. Fully aroused, the avatar mounts her, thrusts, groans, boasts, its mind maggoty with spirochetes. Iä!

  Between her thighs Susie feels the potent fecundating seed of death.

 
 
n bed, Susie jackknifes awake. The plight of her only child jolts into her. Scant minutes away from the asylum lives her only child—no longer larval—languishing, dreaming, cadav erously slim and pale. She envisions him costumed in the antique clothes of his dead father. Hideous by any standard, earthly or otherwise.

  In a midnight hospital room Susie forms a tangible ideation of her child ("a poet of the highest order"). Because she's fatally depleted the phantasm is runt-sized. It drifts near the ceiling fan. Sliced into wisps by the slow rotation of blades, it recombines but loses volume, substance, lacks luminosity. Willed to do so, it alights onto a wall calendar, budging a leaf (May 24, 1921). Then it alights on her wrist. By any earthly standard its expression is hideous, the choreatic tic pronounced. Tiny as it is, the lanternjaws manage to chew through the gauze, freeing one hand. Susie unknots the other wrist, but not before an avalanche of pain engulfs the right upper quadrant of her torso. There, the phantasm suckles, drawing nutrient ooze from the partially unstitched wound. Then and there she expects discontinuation, as the brown ratlike minikin cleaves and burrows into her flesh. Pain is everything. Yet everything is nothing compared to the plight of the Thousand Unborn, whose fate must devolve on her beloved, sublimely gifted, weakling invalid useless child.

 
 
is involvement is essential: belatedly, Susie realizes this. Suddenly the undermind bursts through. What do you expect from my child? demands Sarah Susan.

  "He must tend to his mission," answers the usurper in a goatish bleat. "He must . . . he must devote his energies to the Thousand Unborn. And usher in the Dawn of the Thousand Young."

  He is too frail, he will collapse.

  Susie feels the ideation of her son brush against her cheek, licking teardrops. It is odorless, breath-textured. Inexplicably, it smiles as it slithers through the bars of the window, a slow silvery comet staining the air with a trail of luminous symbols, viscid geometries, larval letterforms.

  Breathing is no longer necessary: Susie realizes this belatedly. When her body is discovered her mouth is open. In repose she appears to be glancing out the window. At midnight the sky of Providence is tinctured with hues of the morgue and the stars. To the eyes of the dead this is a scroll of endless night . . . with symbols and the language of Time etched on the aethers, magically descriptive, cosmic in implication.

 
 

Previous: Substitution
Book main: Foreword