The Second Bait of the Innocent
How Mia got out of the rental, she did not know, but when her senses returned to her, she found herself driving very fast along a busy highway. She didn’t remember how she got there. And it did not matter. She was driving recklessly, weaving in and out of traffic like a lunatic or a drunk; and that scared her almost as much as the dragon had. She slowed immediately and pulled the car into the emergency lane.
She sat there hunched, breathing heavily and with difficulty as cars rushed by. Her face, wet from sweat, was hot to her touch. She turned up the air-conditioning, and with slick and slimy hands grasped at the steering wheel and rested her head against it. She stared straight ahead, looking at nothing at all.
Never, never in all her long life had she been so close to death. Not even when those men in Charleston had attacked her had she been so close.
She was lucky then she guessed, and lucky now too, but she didn’t know how or why, but my waking eyes had been the catalyst that had driven her to her feet and propelled her out the door. And luck, she knew it to be one part circumstantial providence and another part divine intervention, and so it was not something to be dismissed lightly.
In Charleston, the men had been simpleminded and only wanted that which they desired: revenge for one and money for the three others, but seeing her shaking, weeping form kneeling before her master’s beaten, dying body, the thought crossed at least one of those simple minds that there was more here to be taken than just gold and revenge.
She remembered him that sought vengeance: a white man. He smelled of alcohol and, scruffy and unkempt, insolent before his own master when confronted with his negligence: a horse, remaining untied at the railing of a flat-bottomed river ferry. He had no excuse but to accuse some other for not doing his job for him. And after the animal had blundered off the ferry and into the deep, green waters of the Savanna River his indifference was as evident in his face as his contempt for her and the company she kept, but to his own master, it seemed unforgivable to Mia, who had know only servitude since birth.
And then, seeing him again several weeks later at the dock, and she, lulled into safety by happiness, ignored the alarm triggered by his reappearance. Had she truly understood the nature of her genetic mutation at that early age, she might have actually saved her master’s life. But it was no good, then or now, to belabor the incident. She was not responsible for her master’s death nor did she blame herself, nor could she, for the confluence of the three waters: chance, destiny, and luck, were far beyond even the mightiest of Magus’s to control, and she had been but a child at the time. Other wills, she would learn later in life, walk alongside us, and no matter what we do, there is little anyone can do about it. A Magus, she would learn, makes her own rules, but not those that the universe made first.
Her master’s business at that moment had been partly Mia’s own future, for they were to make passage to England. He, to secure business partners for his valuable exports, and Mia, to attend a special school her master had arranged for her there.
The road to Charleston from Georgia had been a welcome one. For all who knew Mia at home were glad to see the back of her, her own mother included. Master had called those years since her father’s death, the learning-years: years in which she learned the importance of fear. Not her own petty fears of windy, dark nights alone in her bed, cowering when the door creaked and the old house made those funny popping sounds as it cooled after an uncomfortably long, hot summer day. No, master had said, real fear: that of others of you and your gift.
Master said he knew of a man in the far away country of England who could help her and upon the morning of her thirteenth birthday, he said it was time she met him.
A week later, he bid her to put down her coarse scrubbing brushes with which she used in his kitchen to clean the pots and pans, and with his oldest son John, and Abigail, the youngest and fittest of his own children’s nursemaids, the three began their passage. It was late 1799, and master proclaimed to his wife, John’s siblings, and to his three foremen and the gathering of all the white and black folk before the stables, that their venture was to bring greater fortune for all of their families, and training in business for John, and a special place for Mia.
And not one hand was clapped against the other at the hearing, for they were a collection of families in bondage, white and black. All depended on the master to do right for all of them. And while they were happy for little John, who, a little wild in his youth, now at sixteen, showed excellent promise as a master himself, it was Mia that stopped the show. Not one clap, not one single prayer of good luck or misgiving of thanks was heard; and so it was in silence, but for John’s mother’s tears, the crowd watched them go. Mia looked for own mother in the crowd, but she was not among them.
It took two weeks to reach Charleston and they lost one horse crossing the Savanna River. It does not pay to be a carless ferryman and her master, infuriated by the costly clumsiness, demanded the man be sacked on the spot; he was, and after a protracted negotiation on the river’s eastern shore that cost them a day, her master was made whole. That night they continued under the gloom of the lost horse. Master was intent on making up for lost time, and because of it, she and Abigail walked.
And Mia remembered that walk well: its itchy, inky feeling of danger. It was like a trickle of water rolling slowly down her spine. It was not actual fear she felt, but unease, for someone was following them; all the way to Charleston town did he come up behind them.
Once in Charleston, it had not helped matters that her master, little John in tow, and with his fat pocketbook, had once again drawn attention to their little party. Master was a kind man and one of great empathy, but at his core, like many rich men made rich by the easy money of cotton and slavery, he was a blowhard and a showoff. They heard stories, for the black folk loved gossip, and in Charleston, there was a lot of it, so much so, that Mia assumed that gossip was the city’s trade. While Mia and Abigail remained in limbo at a boarding hostel for coloreds, master and son seemed to be making a splash about the town. All the while, as each morning came with yet another lurid tale of their nightly exploits in the rum bars of the port city, Abigail became more and more frantic for her little John, whom she had raised-up from a babe. And on the third morning, after a particularly colorful tale involving a woman who could only be rightly called a prostitute, Abigail rose from the breakfast table and declared that this appalling behavior must stop. Gathering her skirts, she ordered Mia not to speak with the other women at the house while she was gone. For Abigail had suspected many of the women to be of ill repute also, and since the day they had arrived in Charleston, Abigail had, in her busy, prim, hen way, kept Mia from speaking with any of them.
Mia smiled at the memory. For Abigail had been right, but at the time Mia had no idea what a woman of ‘ill repute’ was to begin with, nor did she know any good reason not to speak with any of them.
And then she remembered the cat. It’s name was Beetle. But for the life of her she couldn’t remember the name of Beetle’s owner.
After Abigail’s tumultuous declaration and riotous departure to save little John’s virtue, Mia saw one of the girls sitting in the corner of the room. But what caught Mia’s eye was the cat. It’s little ginger head peeked out from under the girl’s skirt only to disappear just as quickly when it saw Mia watching.
The girl was about her age. Shyly, Mia approached her.
“Hello,” she said, kneeling before the girl.
“I thought yo mamma said not to talk wit us whores.”
Mia smiled. “She aint my mamma. Is that a cat?”
The girl looked warily at her, not sure what to think, but she decided Mia could be trusted and slipped the cat out from under her skirt.
“His name is Beetle. You can pet him if you want.”
Mia, delighted by the wriggling, little, ginger thing reached forward and touched the cat gently between his ears. But that was as far as she got, for at her touch, a jolt of electricity ran from her finger, up through her hand, and up her arm and into her brain. Death hung upon this cat like a heavy winter coat hangs upon a scarecrow.
“What’s the matter wit you. You look like you seen a ghost,” said the girl.
Remembering her mother’s rejection and that of most everyone else on the plantation but the master and his family because of her own father’s death, Mia said nothing. She forced her hand back to the animal, and in revulsion, stroked at the dead thing.
“It’s dying you know,” said the girl.
And Mia choked. She could hardly breathe. Was this girl like her? Did she have the ‘sight,’ as everyone called the thing that lived inside her head?
“How do you know,” Mia asked cautiously.
“You just know. He’s not eaten any food for a couple of days now. He’s a’wasting away, but he needs a friend.” She looked up at Mia with eyes shining like saucers, and from that moment on, Mia never feared death again. It was surprising she never remembered the girl’s name. And Beetle, he lived two more days. And the afternoon he died, and after the old gardener had dug a shallow grave for him, and one of the women had given both girls a scrap of black cloth to wear; the two had wept, arm in arm, united as sisters in their sorrow before the hump of dirt in the yard. Suddenly, in her tiny, pathetic grief Mia decided Beetle should live again, she stepped forward, fell before the grave and pushed her hands into its fresh soil. And from out of the brown loam came Beetle screeching and scratching like the Alley cat he was. All Mia remembered was the girl screaming in terror, and the cook chasing the resurrected Beetle about the yard with a carving knife. The memory was vivid in color and horrific because of its innocence. Afterward, after Beetle was safely dead for a second time, the next memory she had was of standing outside the boarding house with her belongings dumped in a pile. She remembered staring and weeping, but did not remember much of what had happened before that moment. Suddenly, Abigail was there and her hand came down gently upon her shoulder. “What you done, girl? Lord have mercy. What you done?”
Mia didn’t know.
But in China, the moment Beetle lived his second life, Simon the Clerk, the Magus of the Earth, started from his sleep and looked strangely into the dark of his room. For Mia’s emergence into the light was the first of many shadowy footsteps along a chaotic path that would lead to his emancipation from life.
* * *
Master had told them it would be only a few weeks before their departure. But Abigail’s unexpected arrival at his hotel and her insistence that she would walk back to Georgia with little John hogtied to her back (if he needed to be). “I tell mistress what’s goin on. And you can spane it all to her,” she challenged him when he told her to return to the boarding house.
Abigail refused to leave the hotel. And after she was thrown out on the pavement she laid down in protest upon the cobbled walk.
“Dare you leave this place wit my boy. You just dare,” she yelled up at the master’s window.
Two days later, he gave in. White people loved gossip too. And a gentleman keeps his house private and well-ordered. A colored nursemaid asleep on the pavement before a hotel, in a mad effort to defend a young boy’s virtue was delightful. It’s poor form to be sure, and quite disgraceful that a Christian should be such a man, or so it was whispered among the many teas of the proper ladies of Charleston town.
And so it was a furious master who sped up their departure. He made passage with a not so reliable or trustworthy firm to take them away from Charleston as quickly as possible. And it was a good thing, too, for the resurrection of Beetle was now overshadowing the gossip of Charleston. It threatened to spill from out of the superstitious Black quarter of town and into the whole of it. For to all, a witch is a witch is a witch.
For the master himself, Charleston was so different from the pleasant plantations of Georgia and its quiet small towns he knew and loved best. Too many distractions here, he decided. And damn Abigail! Bringing to question his honor and his status as a gentleman! But when Abigail returned with real fear in her eyes and screaming nonsensically about Mia and a dead cat he gathered his wits about him. For what Mia had done, he had no doubt. He knew what she might be…, or could be someday. It’s significance! But the urgency to leave Charleston was paramount now. He paid the hotel’s owner a princely sum to keep both Abigail and Mia hidden in the stable until their departure. And it was a good thing too, for the day after Beetle’s resurrection, the whole of Charleston town was searching for the child witch.
There are no coincidences, Mia thought. Had Abigail not gone to little John’s rescue two days before, they would have all been trapped in the town and God only knows what might have happened. But such attention drew other elements into the search, for the ferry man who had been fired at her master’s insistence, found them easily, for he knew their faces, and men like him knows the kind of underclass cad that crawls beneath every dirty city street. Vengeance and money, it was an easy sell. And he watched and he waited.
On the sixth morning after arriving in Charleston, they ran. Little John, Abigail, and Mia hurriedly accompanied their master to the docks in the morning’s dark.
The master’s strides were long and steady. It was difficult to keep up. Every minute or so he would turn and wait. He led them down a long alleyway where people kept their horses and garbage. They crossed a main road and saw only a few cabbies readying their horses and traps, preparing for their mornings work.
As the first light of the morning’s sun crested the Atlantic they reached the dock, and no one had called out to hinder their odd little party. And Mia, for the first time, saw the great expanse of an ocean. It met the sky, seeming to climb up and away from her as she gazed upon it.
But it was the great ships that stopped her in her tracks. Mia was amazed to see their masts, so incredibly high, she almost tipped on her back craning her neck to follow the perfect straight wooden lines into the azure, blue sky above. Mia never knew that trees grew so tall. And with the sun came the first wind of the day. And a nearby ship, with its great, virgin sail unfurled, exploded with a mighty crack as the wind filled it. It was like thunder and Mia cried out in delight. For it was so grand. The rippling flurry of white canvas stunned the senses–John too, for pretending to be man, and unimpressed by all the world had ever presented him, as if he already knew it intimately, sneaked a look at Mia, and a grin cracked at his face. Abigail pushed them both along, hurrying to catch up with the master.
And with the sound of sails booming about them they half walked, half ran, to keep up.
And within her, Mia felt something stirring–it was happiness, true happiness–her very soul seemed to wake-up as if up until that moment she had always been asleep.
Her master stopped suddenly and then turning toward them saw their excitement and smiled.
“Impressive, is it not?”
Coming up to him, with Abigail fretting, holding onto little John’s shoulder as if to protect him from the boisterous world of creaking wood and booming canvas said, “Master we musent stop.”
Mia could not speak, even if she dared to speak. Surely, the great noise of the place would simply drown her.
Her master took her hand and, smiling kindly, turned to the busy port, with its boats and ships rocking restless before the rising sun said, “Mia, the world is far greater than what any of us really knows it to be.”
But suddenly she was distracted. The thing inside Mia’s head saw him first, and she turned quickly to follow its knowing gaze. It was the man from the ferryboat. And on seeing her he slinked away behind some crates further up the dock.
He was small and weasel-like. He was no threat to anyone. She brushed the anxious feeling aside but only because she did not fully understand.
The master did not let go of her hand and suddenly an odd and very strange thought entered her head. It was stupid, but powerful, for it clouded everything, even her third eye seemed to shutter before it: what if master was my father and John my brother and Abigail my mother. What if…, and there, among the hurried ant-like bustle that was the great port of Charleston town, Mia, for a few minutes, had been the happiest girl in the world.
The feeling, odd as it was, did not last long. It was suddenly shattered as quickly as her master’s head was, for a bailing pin is really a thick, solid oaken truncheon when used as a weapon. Seemingly, from nowhere, four men came upon them. And with one mighty swing, her master was down. The side of his head, crushed and broken, in that oh so familiar way, it brought a hoarse cry of despair from Mia’s lips at the irony of it. She fell to her knees before him.
Somewhere behind her, she heard Abigail scream. A similar cry of anguish to her own came from little John as he watched his father fall.
Her master was dying and she pushed at his body and his head with her hands trying to force his departing soul back into its body, but the trauma was too great, and her master’s time was up. There was nothing she could do. An arm wrapped about her throat and dragged her away from the inert frame that had once been a man.
Beside her and above her she heard Abigail and little John shouting in agony, but it barely registered, for her master had begun to speak.
Little John fought the best that could be expected for sixteen-year-old boy, but the brutes that had fallen upon them were in their late twenties and there was little he could do but bruise. Abigail, bigger, much bigger, but far less agile, landed a few well aimed kicks and punches, but against two, she had little effect. Punched repeatedly, she fell to the ground. And there, she sheltered John with her body best she could from the hard iron boots of the man who was kicking at him.
“Master, Sir! Master, Sir!” Mia screamed into the ether, not knowing how she was screaming at all, for a coarse, oily rag had been stuffed rudely into her mouth. It made her gag and choke, and yet she seemed to retain the ability to cry out to her dead master.
Pulled aside and held tight she saw well enough. One man kicked at Abigail and little John, and two others rifled through her master’s dress like pigs rooting at the ground. It was a vile and pathetic thing to watch, and Mia saw into the mind of man who held her: he saw the rooting as beautiful and as an answer to all his prayers. To him, it was as if two gardeners were tending to their vegetables and from this bounty, a healthy salad would unexpectedly emerge.
Suddenly, one man came up with a cry of triumph. He held the master’s pocketbook. The man kicking at Abigail and John turned to see. He moved in on the man with the pocketbook and snatched it from his grasp, and then, without a word of argument, over her master’s dead body, a fistfight ensued.
“Mia, child,” the ghost of her master said, “Listen well, child. In the pocket of my left breast are your tickets to London. Take them and go. A man, his name is Francis Barrett, will meet you. Tell him of me, and of this conversation. Tell him he is to treat you well and see he keeps our bargain, for if not, I will haunt him unto the moment of his death. Keep well little John and Abigail too, for they will be hopeless without you.”
The voice snapped away on the cracking of an enormous, white sail beside and above them and Mia was alone but for the brute holding her face against the grainy wooden dock. He was strong, but watching his three companions fighting over her master’s pocketbook and wanting it for himself, he relinquished his grip slightly, giving Mia purchase. She squirmed from under him and rose up behind him. Realizing she was free of him, he swung his body violently to the left, but he was too slow, and Mia scrambled to her feet and stood.
And seeing her master dead and robbers dividing his property she saw in their minds how they would divide her if she let them. She tore the rag from her mouth as if to speak some great proclamation. She threw the rag upon the ground, and seeing it fall, saw it flutter, taking on many different shapes before it touched the ground.
To Mia, death had a shape. She had seen it in her father and then in Beetle. Life, she knew, because of Beetle, was a shape too. All shapes can be changed, altered, and distorted as if they were falling rags. Mia had done it with Beetle. She had made his death-shape become a life-shape. And it was here, in this vision of Mia, I understood Crystalson’s question: “Do you know what a fractal is, exnzpat?”
And Mia was not sure how she had done that thing to Beetle, but she had, and knowing on some subliminal level she could not help her master, she began to focus on the four men, seeing death-shapes for all of them. And cradling their new shapes, these men, in murder, were not men at all, but stones of the earth.
The men stopped their battle for the pocketbook. They looked to the sky and began to scream. The easiest way to change a shape in Mia’s experience was to fold something, much as the rag had fallen. And so she did what she knew, folding down each head upon the other until all but the ferry man was dead. For him, Mia ripped him in two, and again, and then again, and again once more.
Abigail stopped her. Mia woke to Abigail’s great, black hand slapping at her face. Tears ran from her Abigail’s face in terror. “He’s dead, child. He’s dead. They all dead.”
Little John sat weeping beside his father holding his hand in abject grief, for he was Big John now and Little no more.
Mia pushed herself away from Abigail and went to her master’s body. From his pocket, she removed the tickets for their passage. She looked at the dead men, blood was everywhere, but she saw the pocketbook clutched in the hand of one. She went to him, removed it, and thrusting the documents onto John’s breast said, “John, you are in charge now. The master begs us to board the ship. Our destiny remains unchanged. We must continue.”
Abigail came up to them. “What you talking bout. We got t go t the sheriff and home to the mistress.”
“That is not what he asks,” said Mia firmly.
John nodded slowly, understanding. He knew and then, after a moment, so too did Abigail. The ghost of the master was with Mia.
Mia led the way. They stepped through the blood and torn flesh and went toward the waiting ship, tickets in hand.
No one looked back, for there was nothing to see.
* * *
Without thought, I dropped to my knees and opened my arms to the child.
The little boy ran into my arms and I grabbed at him and held him, smelling him. He was real. He was real. Tears rolled freely down my cheeks, freezing into little drops as they tumbled onto my shirt.
He was real, but from the corner of one eye, I saw Lilith holding Lincoln by his collar. Lincoln had gone mad with the same fury that had driven him to attack me on the ice sheet.
Red flames flew from his wild, pulsing body. His black and white strobe light thumped into the woolly mist like a banshee caught in a trap. Snow blew all about him and melted as it touched his flaming coat. Steam rose from his body and a large puddle of water was forming at his feet, exposing the rocky crust of the mountain beneath us.
Behind Lilith and the lava spewing Lincoln came another child, but this one was not real, or at least she looked more like an apparition of a child than something tangible; she was not at all like my boy, for he was solid. It was a little girl, and her body, clothing and all, was as transparent as a ghost’s was, so much so, she appeared fail and sickly in the whirlwind of the storm about us. Lilith did not see her. Lincoln did not see her. Only I saw her. Together we all seemed frozen in time, for everyone’s attention remained on my son and me.
Unblinking, the little girl stared. Her eyes looked to me to be out-of-focus. They were brown and had a tint of dusky gold glowing within their depths. Her eyes seemed to me to be unreal things and then I suddenly knew them not to be her own. But I did know them! And gently, as if taken by the hand of a child, I fell into them.
But my son, he was real and so I looked away. Closing my eyes, I held onto him for the dearest of dearest of dear life. I could smell his hair and feel the warmth of his skin on my neck. He was real. He was alive. But how could this be? How? Suddenly, those things of my past fell away like a crumbling city of antiquity. Questions of how or why did not matter, and so I decided not to care. I squeezed at exnzpat3 and he squeezed at me in return.
He was real.
Lilith began to scream at me with her voice.
“…something is interfering with our minds! Exnzpat! Can you hear me? Get away from that thing!”
“Dad, you’re hurting me.”
“It is a golem! It is an unreal thing. A thing made of ash, snow, and your own wretched sorrow.”
“Sorry, son, it’s just… just so good to see you. I love you.”
“Exnzpat, can you hear me? Listen to…”
I opened my eyes and just a few feet from my boy and me, I saw the strangest sight. There was a woman there. She was holding a large angry dog by its collar. She was strikingly beautiful, and I had to shake my head in amazement; she was naked but for the gossamer wreath of snow that shaded her body in white.
And I heard the woman speak and this is what she said: “It is here to tempt you! Get away from it.”
“Dad, it’s cold out here. Can we go into the cabin?”
I tore my eyes away from the woman, for I found the shrillness of her voice bothersome. “Yeah, good idea, son. It’s cold out here, and noisy, too.”
Snow muffles the world; stone does it better. I broke our embrace, took my youngest son by the hand, and led him to a nearby cave. There was a noise somewhere back where we had been in the snow. I turned to look, my son pulled hard upon my hand to stop me and I almost didn’t see, but what I thought I saw before we went into the cave was a large black dog yelp in pain. It leapt into the air and then fell back to earth like a large black stone. It remained there unmoving like a heap of tatty cloth. Its hair was on fire and it smoldered and smoked as if it were a fire made from wet rubbish and damp wood.
There was a little girl there too, and a striking woman wearing no clothing. She must be cold, I thought. I looked back to my son. He pulled at my hand. “Come on, Dad. I’m cold.”
As I turned to go, I saw, or thought I saw, the little girl pull a string from her mouth. I’d once seen a magician do the same thing with knotted handkerchiefs. It was a good trick and I learned later that the handkerchiefs are hidden in the sleeve, but this did not seem to be the case here. The little string the girl removed was white. It reminded me of something, but what, I could not remember. The girl’s skin seemed to pale and weaken when she removed the string, giving her already delicate body a look fragility to it that made it appear she would snap if bent.
The girl placed the string into one tiny, white hand and with the other, began to rub at it between her palms. And like a noodle of plasticine, the string began to elongate and grow. Suddenly, a puff of black smoke engulfed her hands. The smoke began to thicken. It took the shape of thick, black twine; it curled and spun about her hands in a whirl. The bustling blackness took the shape of a ball, and within it, her hands disappeared completely.
An acrid smell of a burning rubber filled the air and the black ball of twine jumped from the little girl’s hands and came down upon the naked woman. And like a stout, strong rope, it began to wrap about the woman, curling and tightening the way a python does when it is about to throttle some small animal for its food.
Startled by this, there was confusion in the woman’s eyes. Furiously she began to push and pull away at the black, writhing thing that had entrapped her. In her hands the rope of smoke had the consistency of taffy and the more she struggled the more entangled she became. The woman screamed; and she screamed into the blowing snow. It was a name she spoke, and it seemed directed at me. It sounded like ‘Exnzpat.’ But what kind of name is that? It’s not even a real name. And it’s not my name. My name is Stuart. Clearly, she wasn’t calling to me. I turned away and went with my boy into the cave. Though the cave, open and dark, looked remarkably like a cozy winter’s cabin.
And this is what happened next.
* * *
Inside the cabin, we found a comfortable couch and sat before a coal fire that burned merrily in a grated fireplace. On the table before us, there were three steaming mugs of hot chocolate with marshmallows melting upon their tops.
“Are we expecting someone?” I asked my son.
But he said nothing. He had pulled me excitedly to the couch, but now, just stared dumbly into the fire, his face blank, and I wondered if he was ill.
“Do you feel sick?” I asked, suddenly concerned. I reached out and put my hand on his forehead, and while he looked serene, his head and face were as cold as ice. Shocked, I brought my hand away quickly.
He did not answer me. He continued to stare into the fire. I slowly turned his face to mine. He did not resist. It was as if he had suddenly become as something modeled and thick: a wax dummy, but in the shape of my youngest boy. His face was gray and elicited no emotion whatsoever. Before entering the cabin his face had been one of excitement, but now he seemed empty and blank, a hollowed-out version of himself. And his eyes, while they looked like his, had no light in them, no spark, no anything; instead, they reminded me of the eyes of a fish.
“Billy,” I whispered. I was both confused and concerned all at the same time. Something seemed wrong…, but what it was, I could not tell.
A sound came from beside me and a small voice said, “He’s okay. Nurse said he’s just sleepy. He’s come along way.”
I turned from my son and saw a small girl of about eight or nine standing beside the couch. She was wearing a bright blue dress. She had long, black hair that dropped well below her shoulders. She had it tucked neatly behind her ears and because of it, her face glowed in bright innocence, though set with sunken blue eyes, she looked somewhat sleepy herself. She reminded me vaguely of someone I had seen before, but I swore that I remembered that child’s eyes to be brown, and before I could grasp the memory, it slipped gently away from me.
“Hello,” I said. “And what’s your name?”
“Lester,” she answered happily and put out a small bony hand to shake.
I took it. And unlike the skin of my son, this strange, happy child’s touch was warm and vibrant.
“Well, it’s nice to meet you, Lester. Where are you from?”
“Rockford, Illinois. I came here to this hospital to get well.”
“Hospital? Which hospital?”
“This one, silly.” But as she said it she seemed suddenly unsure and looked about the cabin with wide eyes.
I smiled. “It’s okay, most times I wonder if I might actually be dreaming all this and I’m really safely tucked away in a hospital of my own somewhere.”
She sat beside me and reached for her mug of hot chocolate. She lifted it to her lips and blew and, taking a tentative sip, said sagely, “You have to be careful with hot things. You might get burned.”
“Yes,” I replied, reaching for my own mug. “I agree.”
Together we sipped our chocolate in silence.
Suddenly she said, “We’re not in the hospital anymore are we. We’re in a cave on the side of a gi-normous mountain, arn’t we.”
I looked at her and smiled. Her blue eyes were as wide as saucer plates.
“I’m not sure,” I said, “but that sounds right, but I don’t remember this cabin being here.”
“You know,” she said, putting down her mug and staring frankly into my face, “Below the mountain I saw a giant river with tons of islands. I bet there’s pirate treasure buried on at least one of them. We could find it if we looked.”
Billy shifted beside me. I turned to look at him. His mouth opened and closed rapidly. He spoke no words. And he did it again as if trying to speak. It gave him the appearance of squat, gray toad croaking, but making no sound, and I wondered again, what might be wrong with him.
I turned back to the little girl.
“Nurse told me he’s sort of like a clockwork boy. You wind him up, and at first he works fine, but as time passes he winds back down again.”
Startled, I had no idea how to reply to that, so I went back to the first thing she said. “Treasure? Maybe, but I think it’s more important that we let your mommy and daddy know you’re okay before we go hunt for pirate treasure.”
She bit her lip and looked about the cabin. “I guess. My dad won’t care, though. He went away.”
“Yeah,” she reached out and touched my hand, “…and brace yourself, ’cause I’m goin’ to swear. My mom said he was chicken-shit, and that’s why he left.”
“He left? Where did he go?”
She shrugged her shoulders and reached for her hot chocolate again.
Suddenly my son said, “My mom’s dead.”
I stared at him. His face, contorted in grimace, showed real pain, but his eyes were tight, like wound-up grey marbles, they showed no expression whatsoever. The flesh of his cheeks and tiny jowl gave off no flush of life, and the contortion of expressive muscles in his face seemed more automatic and contrived than real. It was as almost as if he were a mannequin dressed in flesh. Gollum! Was a word that suddenly jumped into my mind, where it came from, I had no idea.
Lester stood and walked carefully round the table and touched Billy’s forehead with her index finger and said, “Shhhh, child. Not now. Be still.”
And in the instant she spoke those words I saw her eyes change color from blue to brown. I tried to stand. I wanted to push her away from my boy. I could not, I felt latched to the couch and when I tried to rise, it was as if a soft hand kept me down, keeping me trapped. Panic began to rise in me and that panic belayed the surreal nature of this pleasant evening before the fire with this strange child and my oddly behaving, youngest son. For something was wrong. Where did this couch come from, and this hot chocolate? I had a vague recollection of a foreign world populated with old men, statues, and ghosts. It was of a glowing world that celebrated its summer’s moon with walking trees that bowed, bent, and swayed by the light of it. What was going on? Where had that world gone? And why was my son acting so strangely? He was normally a bundle of energy. He was impossible at the dinner table. His mother had always said he would be an athlete. I never doubted it, but for my nail-puller.
And now, where had that come from? Nail-puller? What’s that?
Lester returned to her seat beside me and suddenly the panic blooming in me died away. It was as if the same soft hand that held me down was now caressing my head and neck, and slowly, under its touch, I began to relax once more.
“This is a pretty place,” Lester said happily. “I saw the river, the islands, green forests, and mountains that just seemed to go on forever. What’s the name of this place?”
“Ugh. That’s an ugly name. Is it named after the plant?”
“I don’t know. Maybe, I think it’s a herb, but I’m not sure. I don’t know much about plants,” I said truthfully.
“How did you come here?”
“A lady brought me,” I said, knowing it to be true, but not actually remembering it.
“Oh, oh!” Lester jumped excitedly in her seat, “I saw a lady… and a dog, too. They’re outside, only…” she looked at me coyly and whispered, “The lady has no clothes on.”
“Really? That’s odd. Why doesn’t she have any clothes on?”
“I don’t know?” Lester said, and again her eyes widened in amazement. “It’s very strange. I just don’t know?”
“Maybe we should ask her, then?” I replied, curious.
“Can’t. She’s frozen in the ice. She looks like that witch from that movie with the beautiful lion in it.”
“Do you like lions?” I asked.
“Oh, yes. I saw one in a zoo once, but it was kinda smelly.”
I smiled. “How smelly?”
Lester squeezed her thumb and forefinger together, and clasping at her little nose, said, “Berry belly.”
Together we laughed.
I felt something cold touch my arm. It felt like the tentacle of a sea creature and I flinched and pulled away. It was the hand of my son.
“Dad. Why did you kill us?” he asked.
“What? What are you talking about? No one’s killed anyone. See…” I reached out and grasped his shoulder. And where I saw clothing and expected to touch clothing, I felt only smoothness. He was clad in that light sweater with the Pittsburg Pirates logo on it. He always loved that sweater, and I remember he always wore it to bed. His mother hated it. She always wanted him to wear the pajamas she bought him, but he refused. His mutiny was famous and many great wars were fought because of it. And so, where I expected the coarse fabric of the sweater, instead I discovered a smooth waxy substance that was shock-cold to my touch.
I snatched my hand away, repulsed. His own hand, his left, at my flinch, had fallen to my knee. I quickly pushed it away as if it were a poisonous snake.
“Billy, what’s wrong with you?”
Reluctantly, I put my hand on his shoulder again, shaking him lightly. The feeling of his silky smoothness on my hand made my skin crawl, but I kept my hand there anyway. He was my son, after all.
Billy did not answer, only his head rocked unnaturally from side-to-side because of my shaking.
“He’s a funny boy, don’t you think?” Lester said.
“Well, his skin is very gray and there is a little piece of string growing out of his head. And, I don’t know. I’m not sure he’s real.
“He looks like a candle.”
“Of course he’s real. He’s right here,” I said angrily.
“Sorry,” the girl said softly.
I’d frightened her and I felt immediately terrible because of it. I turned to her to apologize and suddenly it was as if the light in the cabin changed for I saw her body frail and old. She looked emaciated and deathly pale, and her eyes were now brown. I blinked and in that instant, her eyes were blue again, and the pale, boisterous girl in a blue dress suddenly reappeared.
“That was weird,” she said.
“I was back in the hospital again,” she said, pulling back on her hair. “I don’t like the hospital. I hurt there.”
“Yes, you know, silly. From my disease.
“Oh, and what disease is that?”
“Leukemia,” she said quietly. And she watched me cautiously, almost as if she expected me to get up and leave; chicken-shit! Chicken-shit, just like her dad.
“I see,” I said carefully. “And you don’t hurt here?”
“No!” she slapped her hands on her knees and laughed. “It’s beautiful here. I’m beautiful here…” but she stopped suddenly and her cheeks flushed bright red. “I didn’t mean it like that. I’m not special or fancy or anything like that. I…, I just feel good.”
“I know what you mean,” I smiled warmly at her. “Pain makes you feel ugly.”
She returned my smile shyly, and looking intensely at her hands on her knees, said simply, “Yes.”
Beside us, Billy stirred, but he said nothing. I dared not touch him again; instead, I looked closely at his skin. It was as Lester had said. He was gray: gray and ashy as an old man on his deathbed. His skin seemed almost translucent now, and instead of the pulsing motion of blood in his veins, I fancied a squirming of eels and worms pushing past one another through his waxy self. He hunched forward just then, as if lunging for something on the table before us. But there was nothing there to be seen.
I looked away, back to the girl, but she was gone. I stood and went to the door of the cabin and looked. Outside was black as pitch and I could see nothing but swirling snow.
“Lester?” I shouted, unsure. I went back inside to look, but she was not there.
Confused, I went back to my son, the couch, and the fireplace. I stopped short. For there before me was a long rock, upon it, three fist sized stones. Where my son had sat was a pile of melting snow, ash, twigs, and sodden leaf.
There was no fireplace.
I stood there, my mouth agape, in the horror of it. How long I stood there, I’m not sure.
A touch came at my side. Giant clawed fingers curled about my left shoulder blade, encompassing the whole of it.
I turned to see and saw the yellowed, gargantuan, gargoyle shape of Lilith beside me. And because of her touch, I remembered everything that had happened. The cloak of grey mist that had doused my senses and my memory, lifted. And the whole awfulness of all that had gone before came flooding back to me.
I slumped against Lilith’s breast and she caught me. “Oh, Lilith,” I wept, “what is to become of me?”
And from within her mind I saw a terrible loneliness living within her. It had traveled the universe with her like a creeping fungus; the past–from the creation of the stars until this very moment had been so empty and so bereft of love, kindness, laughter, and joy, but for one gift: that of a dog named Lincoln.
Laying my head against her crocodilian skin my sorrow seemed selfish, paltry, and petty, before her own great sorrow and loneliness, for there was something new in her, something far greater, perpetually vaster and devastatingly more terrible. And it engulfed me. It was so overwhelming I felt my senses begin to collapse about me.
Something had changed, for her despair was a singular vacuum that, magnified by our closeness, blotted everything in black ink. The past had been nothing. The future: she saw it as empty as nil.
“Lilith, my God, what is it? What is wrong?” I said aloud.
Through reptilian lips she choked, “Lincoln is dead.”