Startled, and surprised by their strength, I began to struggle, but that only made things worse. They did not have gentle hands.
My captors were human in shape only. Up close, their eyes were as dead as a cow’s, and that is the best way I can describe them. Their eyes were bestial – eyes like that of an animal. Inquisitive, yes, but dull and without feeling. Behind them, I saw no soul. They were empty creatures, clothed in near-human form.
The fish-woman had my right arm and the fish-man my left. They dragged me up-close to their faces to see me better. They looked at me with their listless sight, wondering what it was they had snared.
I struggled. The shock of their grabbing me had pummeled the last few breaths of air from my lungs. I lunged and kicked wildly – I was drowning. I don’t know what I had expected in death, but it wasn’t this.
The two creatures drew me down. Both were incredibly strong, and the water was their home. I saw that their fingers were web-like, joined together by a fine diaphanous piece of skin, otherwise their fingers were boney and hard, they dug deeply into my arms, puncturing my skin. Blood seeped from my wounds in bucketfuls, and it was from within a red swirl of bubbly-blood that I watched my demise.
Time slowed; my struggle slowed. I could only stare at their webby hands on my arms; I found their faces, especially their eyes, far too repugnant to behold. I noticed that their fingers did not have fingernails. At the time, and even now, I always thought it an odd thing to notice with no air in my lungs. It’s funny the way the mind works – finding distraction from reality in minutia. While their death-grip on my arms remained my focal point throughout the encounter, and with my own hands trapped, unable to pry theirs loose, I was completely at their mercy – and yet I saw no mercy in their eyes. I tried to kick at them but they pushed me back and held me at a full arms length and so my feet did not have the reach needed for kicking. Whoever said that drowning is a pleasant way to die never tried it!
I reached with my face and bit at the woman’s fingers, thinking she would be the easiest to fight; I was wrong. She retaliated by deftly clubbing me in the side of my head with her other hand, and with it, grabbed my hair and pulled. Her hand on my arm budged not one iota.
Both creatures were muscular and lean; almost all bone. Their upper bodies were barrel-like, with wide, powerful shoulders. The woman, though naked, showed her femaleness in only her face; her chest was as indistinguishable as the man’s was.
The two pulled and grappled with me. I fought hard, but not hard enough for I began to blackout from lack of oxygen. The swirl of bubbled blood and the general distress of the water about us hid their lower bodies. What I could make out though, was not pleasant. Their legs did not appear to have kneecaps. Straight and boney, these two sticklike appendages thrust at the water, holding them as balanced as a gyroscope, as they fought me. I did notice that the same gossamer skin woven between their fingers was also present between their legs. For feet, I did not see any. I do not believe that they had any.
Madness took me as my brain starved itself of oxygen. I found one last reserve of energy and used it, but to no avail. The creatures were far too strong. A black tunnel formed and a light appeared before my eyes. The fish-people dragged me down; deeper and deeper they took me. Beware of the water, I heard Lilith say.
The spiral of bubbles and blood that marked our violent struggle was probably of no more consequence than smoke from a single chimney on a winter’s day. Then, just before I faded to death, the two beings released me and zoomed off in opposite directions.
Faint and disoriented, as if drugged, I saw a light ahead, and from somewhere deep within me I found a last reserve, and kicked weakly toward it. I was not sure whether the light hung above me or below me, or even if it was simply a figment of an oxygen-starved brain – but regardless, I kicked for it.
I exploded from out of the pool with a hoarse gasp that was almost an expletive. I drew in one huge lungful of air and swam at panic-speed for the side of the pool. I drove out of the water like a seal on ice, sliding my body up hard upon the tile. I vomited water and pomegranate from my stomach, all the while, gasping for air. I scooted on my belly as fast as I could. I held a deep abiding fear that the creatures would return and drag me back down into the water again. The horror of their nature was appalling. Grotesque and alien: I shuddered at the thought of their touching me once more.
I coughed and spat the last of the water from my lungs, and in pure exhaustion, rolled onto my back with my eyes closed. With adrenalin now abating, my heart slowed and I felt incredibly tired. After a few minutes of quiet, with my breathing returning to normal I called out to Lilith. “Okay, you were right. Beware of the water – and all that. And yes… I should have listened to you.”
Silence graced my ears. It was unlike Lilith not to taunt me aloud or within my head when an opportunity arose.
“Lilith?” my voice had a strange echo to it.
I opened my eyes to look. There was no Lilith. I was alone, and the pool I lay beside was not the one I dove into only minutes before. I sat up quickly, and looked about.
The same red butterfly motive was present on the tile, but… but this pool – this pool was indoors. Above my head, instead of an empty black sky and a hanging mountaintop with an ever present setting Sun, was a highly colorfully painted ceiling.
“Lilith…?” I called again weakly. I closed my eyes and then quickly opened them, hoping that this strange building would disappear. Alas, it did not.
I sighed, resigned to the fact that my initial plan of climbing the property ladder had yet again taken another bad turn – and so – why had I expected that this day should be any different from the last?
I listened carefully, for Lilith. By listening, I mean with my mind. During the trek across the dunes, while carrying Becky, I had come to realize that Lilith’s presence in my mind was not a new thing. In fact, she had been there very early on; at least during the first week when Lincoln and I had moved into the rental, and I had begun the rehab. And by presence I don’t mean a “speaking presence,” or I guess it was more like what popular literature would call “telepathy,” but it wasn’t really. When Lilith spoke to me in my head, it was as if she was really in there – and I mean, actually right there inside my head. Kind of like the background noise of traffic from a distant freeway — barely noticeable, unless you deliberately focus upon it. Lilith was part of me; and when she spoke to me, it seemed like a natural thing, but also, it was a natural thing to answer her. Our communication was not a forced thing, and no distance whatsoever lay between us. She was in me, and I in her, but now, with this strange arched ceiling above me, I could not feel her presence at all. Lilith was not there in my head. We were cutoff – torn apart, separated.
I was alone.
* * *
There was a stale, unused, and ancient smell to this place, not so much a smell of mold, but more the acrid smell of old dust: an antique smell that belonged to some older time.
I collected my wit, and stood. There was blood everywhere. It was mine. My arms were streaked with it, and so too was my chest. Carefully I inspected the puncture wounds on my arms. Both arms had the perfect finger prints of the fish-people indelibly carved there. While there was a lot of blood, I saw that the wounds were only superficial and would easily heal after a little compression. As I had no cloth about me, I simply gripped the wounds on my left arm with my right hand and held it for a few minutes. A few minutes later, I did the same to my right arm. I alternated this basic surgery for about ten minutes, until the blood ceased to ooze.
I looked about, taking in the space round me. I was in a large ornate room, tiled in the manner of a Middle Eastern home; the pool was the center point of the room. The ceiling above me was a vaulted one, and very high; I counted two terraced balconies wrapping the walls above me. Holding it all in place were wide gilded pillars, each with gold and silver metal inlay. These pillars rose up at least thirty feet, and the balconies were perched above them. Between the pillars, from the base of the lowest balcony, pillar to pillar, hung thick embroidered tapestries decorated in a medieval style with shiny armored knights riding fine Arabian Stallions. Clustered in groups about the horses, leather-clad foot soldiers bearing pikes and large curved axes, walked hunched, expectant, and ready to defend their knight if need be. Behind them, archers with longbows, caught in mid-pull, their arrows virtually quivering in their bows, ready for flight, waited. The entire frieze, staged as if on a battlefield, seemed alive, but there was no enemy to be seen anywhere. There was no doubt the enemy was there, but they remained hidden, hiding somewhere beyond the horizon – somewhere beyond the embroiderer’s reach. Stitched along the hem of each tapestry, one after the other, the little skull-and-crossbones of Pirate lore, framed them all.
On the ceiling above, a fresco of a man, dressed in Victorian garb, sat in a glade of trees bathed in warm sunlight surrounded by a host of little children. I say Victorian garb because, with a pale white face, short, rough-cut dark hair, a tidy black moustache, and wearing a gabardine suit and sporting a bowtie, the man appeared to be distinctly English, and belonging to the Victorian era — or at least he did, as my prejudicial eye saw it.
Of the children gathered about the man, these either sat in the warm grass near him or nested in trees like little birds above him, all seemed enrapt with what he had to say, and I thought perhaps that he was telling them a story. On closer inspection however, I saw that the man was drawn speaking to an older girl, whose face was partially hidden by long flowing locks of golden hair. Whatever the man had to say seemed to be of great importance to his audience, for their faces, as in all children, were cherubic and innocent, but their expressions showed them to be keenly spellbound and ecstatic because of what the man was telling them.
Fascinated, I studied the fresco. There was something very odd about it, but I could not put my finger on exactly what that “something” was.
I moved away from the pool, and in doing so, caught a different vantage of the fresco — and then I saw it.
It was the girl with the half-hidden face who was doing the speaking – not the man. And it was the man and the children who were doing the listening. The fresco, drawn in the pointillist fashion, gave the ceiling a spiny soft feel to the entire room, and I could not help but notice that even though the young girl was facing inward, into the painting, what could be seen of her face looked remarkably like that of Lilith’s. Only, it was not Lilith — a sister, perhaps. What the Lilith look-alike was saying, I could not guess, but whatever she was saying, she held the attention of the man and the children completely. For adoration shone in the eyes of both man and child alike.
Cautiously, I peeked behind the nearest tapestry. It was another room of similar size, also fenced by another wall of similar styled tapestries. The fresco on this ceiling was of the same Victorian man and the little children – but instead of the gentle scene that graced the ceiling above the pool, it was an image of the children kneeling before a giant Crow. The Victorian man sat astride a white horse and carried a wicked looking sword. He looked rather out of sorts in his heavy gabardine suit and bowtie – hardly the proper armor for war.
In the center of this room, instead of a pool, stood a dozen or so pure white alabaster statues of men and women frozen in mid dance, with arms intertwined about each other’s waists and their hands clasped tightly in stone. They looked remarkably like real people. The women’s dresses were wide-cut, and were so perfect that they appeared to flow like boiling water from out of their perfect waists. The men, in well-fitted suits, wore intricately carved shoes upon their feet, for as I looked, I noticed that even their laces were not forgotten. These men looked quite charming, and alongside their fairer partner, looked remarkably exquisite and beautiful.
I pushed between the tapestry and the pillar. The tapestry was heavy. Guiltily, I dried my naked, wet, and bloodied body, on it as I went. In my peril with the fish-people, I had forgotten my nakedness, and it was no easy measure that I moved into the room with the dancing statues. I told myself that they were only statues, and yet, I could not help but feel that their eyes stared just the same. Moreover, as creepy as it sounds, I began a self-analysis of my own nakedness. Did I care? I discovered that I did not, and then I thought, this, after all, was not my body. Then what is it that we fear in the judgment of others? I suddenly realized that I did not know. The wearing of another man’s body did seem to shed all cultural and social prohibitions in me. My awareness of my true-self had not changed – and yet… here I was, unperturbed by my nakedness, or at least executionerofthewill’s nakedness.
Carefully, I walked the gauntlet of dancers and made my way to the tapestry on the other side of the room. I was now intently curious about this place and its walls of cloth.
I peeked behind this tapestry and saw yet another set of statuesque dancers. I walked into this room and studied the nearest couple. They were of a man and a woman. And like the others, there was no color to their dress, hands, or faces. Gently, I stroked the face of the woman with the palm of my hand. The face was cool to the touch, but was so real that the act felt as if I were somehow violating her privacy; quickly I withdrew my hand. I wondered at the material they were made from. Alabaster, I think. If so, then these were polished casts and not carved things.
I left the couple and walked about the room looking into each of the faces of the dancers. Each was different, each an individual. Did this mean that somewhere, some great artist had used real people to set this strange stage?
I looked up, taking in the fresco above. It stopped me cold – dead in my tracks.
The fresco was of me.
* * *
I stared at it, amazed, for it was not me as I am now – inside the body of executionerofthewill, but that of the real me, exnzpat — but not the human version of me, but that monstrous thing that I made myself into on that last terrible night at the rental.
The fresco showed my head, scarred and broken – with one dumb, sightless glass eye – my single prosthetic, for the damage I had done to my right eye socket was far too extensive to fit another. The surgeon working my face simply blended skin from my cheek, merging it porridge-like, over the hole where my right eye had once been. In the image above me, I could clearly see that great scar, running from where my right eye had once been, all the way down to my neck. My blunted, ruined ears, wrought by my violent blows to the side of my head, showed only as little nubs.
It showed me as I really was. My aborted effort to deaden and ease the burden of what I had just done, leaving me blind and killing my hearing – it was a pitiful attempt to build a barrier, a wall, a shield — anything to fence me in and away from what I had done.
I know now that I should have killed myself – but at the time, I did not think of it. Looking back though, I supposed that Lilith’s presence stopped me, and once done with depositing the Scudamour’s soul into Hell, or whatever she did with the wretched thing, she came back to me. I remember now. How she came to me. She lifted me up – held me – like a mother holds a child – but then, nothing afterwards. Then the police came and took me away. Thinking of that time brought tears to my eyes. I brushed them aside and continued to study the fresco.
What surprised me about the fresco was that it was of me carrying Becky across the dunes, as I had only just done. On Becky’s head, you could even make out the bruising and the traces of dried blood where she had fallen and struck her head on the chair. Her innocence, beauty, and simplicity of face were strikingly moving to behold.
The artist had placed Lilith in the foreground. Her hair was wild and flew about her perfect, naked body, as if caught in some imagined windstorm. There was high drama in her pose, reminding me of the movie cover of “Gone with the Wind.” Despite my circumstance, I smiled at this, for it seemed appropriate. Standing at Lilith’s side, as if he were a giant oak, was Lincoln, larger than life, his thick coat drawn as if it were a lion’s mane, virile, powerful, and fearless. The two of them stood on the edge of a dune, their eyes full of purpose and business. The image of me, however, bringing up the rear, with Becky in my arms, was troubling. My deformed face was one thing, but the painter had drawn my single prosthetic eye hauntingly empty. Which it was, but it gave the overall impression that I lacked a soul – much as I had just witnessed in the fish-people.
The painter drew me as a monster. To the casual observer, one who could not known the origin of this painting, he would see, not a troubled man hurrying to get Becky to a doctor, but rather, a malevolent creature clutching at Becky’s inert frame with rapacious intent. The painter portrays me as Frankenstein’s monster: giving rise to the sinister notion that I had rudely murdered Becky and was now returning to my lair to feed upon her. It was ugly. It was false.
I stood staring for a long moment, my heart sinking. Was I really such a creature? If I was to be perfectly truthful, I was ugly, and so the painter had captured me perfectly, but by the falsehood of the image I could not abide, yes, I was a monster, murderer, and body snatcher, but when it came to Becky, none it was true. Becky was as much a victim of circumstance as I. She stumbled in on our search for the Scudamour’s letters as dramatically as I had stumbled in on the battle between Lilith and Scudamour.
The fresco was a lie; I shied my eyes from it – and it changed nothing, for a monster I remained, and there was no one here to dispute it.
Unable to stand it anymore, I pushed my way back through the curtain and walked lightly back the way I had come. I soon found myself back in the room with the pool in it.
The water in the pool was dark, for the light in the strange building was dim — and it was then I realized that I could see no light source, anywhere. I looked about, assuming some hidden mechanism, as one might find in a modern house, like inset lighting, but incredibly, I found none. The room, and those that I had just left, had a soft golden glow that seemed to emanate from its center and diffuse outward. I tried to focus on particular parts of the room, trying to delineate where the light was coming from, but could not. After a few minutes of this, I gave up and went to inspect the pool more closely, looking for signs of the treacherous fish-people, but saw no one.
I looked to either end of the room, searching for stairs leading to the upper levels of the building, but saw nothing there either, not stairs or even a door.
On the other side of the pool, another tapestry, like all the others, hung to the floor. I went to it, and studied the image woven into it. This tapestry was the mirror image of the other – the same image, but backwards – like its negative. I lifted it and went into the room behind it.
Like the others, this room too was full of dancing statues, and I stared at them wondering what all this meant. Surely, there was purpose to this place, and the fresco on this ceiling was of no help at all.
Four men in tweed suits sat before a small device that looked like a portable television set. They looked to be sitting in a well-appointed office or library, because lining the room’s walls were books. A darkened window behind them told me it was nighttime where they were.
The men were staring intently, but horror struck by the image on the screen of their little television set.
On this screen, I could see the image of a man, of sorts; he was a large man with a thick physique and heavy torso. His chest was barrel-like — muscular. A matt of thick, black hair, stood upon his head as if in kingly meditation, it melded with perfect ferocity with the goatee that jutted darkly from under his chin. He was a great shaggy creature, a brute of a man — for there was doubt that he was a man, and yet…
And yet…, emerging from out of his forehead, indistinguishable from the common bone, was a very visible and very singular horn. This horn was not that of a ruminating animal but more that of an insect. It was red in color and spike-like in kind, suddenly reminding me of a wasp’s stinger. From this stinger, a pale, viscous fluid, leaked. It gave a vile contentiousness to his already horrible countenance. The man was clothed in dark heavy robes, like that of a medieval sorcerer, and the light about the man that fell upon him, was instantly swallowed up — so pervasive and omnipresent was his presence, even recorded in frieze.
The four men were shocked by his earthiness and as repelled by his authority as I was. He was a brute of a man, and though I had never before seen this image, I knew this man instantly.
It was Scudamour!
Of the men in the room, three remained seated, their faces horrified by what they saw, but for the fourth man, the painter captured him in mid-flight, running toward the television set. His eyes filled, not with horror, but with that of absolute terror. The running man’s eyes were not fixed on Scudamour, but fell upon those of a woman who could be clearly seen standing behind Scudamour.
The woman was striking to look at, but again, as if the painter of the fresco knew of deeper things, had drawn her attractive and that was that. Behind her eyes, a kind of vapidity existed, and that was all that could be said for her: she was an attractive woman, and somehow, the running man knew her, for the terror alive in his eyes was not for himself, but for her.
Then, with a start, I recognized the running man. He too was Scudamour. I recognized his face from his photograph. That which the police had shown me, when I enquired about the murder at my rental property on Erehwon Street. This was the man who killed his wife and child in the 1970’s. He had encased their body parts behind the wall of the back bedroom and then headed for the Carolinas.
A chill went through me. I almost fell because of it. Here was the man who had been compelled to do as I had done.
I stepped back, my concentration so full on the fresco above me that I did not hear the thing that moved softly behind me.
* * *
I grabbed the arm of the nearest statue and stopped my swoon. What was going on here? I thought, two Scudamours? It does not make sense.
The shaggy beast I knew to be Scudamour, the man with the thorn upon his head — I knew him in my heart. I knew him because he had inhabited me. He was the architect and destructor of my family, and it was he who used me as his instrument – his cutting tool. Yes, I knew the horned Scudamour very well indeed. But what of this other Scudamour, the running man, what was his story, and why he did look so terrified; why make a run the horned Scudamour even though he be nothing more than image on a television screen? Did the horned Scudamour take him also, and if so, how did my rental come to play a staring role in such a perverse relationship.
Then, from behind me, a sudden sound made me jump. Instantly, I froze. The tapestry to my left bulged inward, as if someone or something had brushed against it.
It never occurred to me that this place might be inhabited. It was a place of images and statues, and I assumed that I was alone in it. I immediately thought of the fish-people but then dismissed the idea. There was no possible way, with their legs bent so, they could move upon land. But this idea only bothered me more, for what other bizarre creatures inhabited this world? What was it Lilith had said: creatures fall in and out of this world.
The thing on the other side of the tapestry moved away but then returned. I could hear padded footfalls softly thumping the tiled floor.
Spinning toward the sound, I saw the tapestry begin to shift inward again, some twenty paces from where I stood. Whatever it was, it was coming toward me.
With my heart beating faster than I thought possible, I suddenly became aware of my nakedness and an absence of a weapon to protect myself with. I sidled up close to the dancing couple next to me, they were in mid spin, and I crouched between them as best as I could. I listened intently, expecting the worst, and when it did not come, I decided that flight was my best option. I sprinted from my position to the next tapestry and dove under it scraping my knees and groin. Without looking back, I ran toward the next tapestry and did the same; I kept running. Tapestry after tapestry, room after room – after ten, and my knees bloody, I stopped counting. How many chambers were in this place, I never did discover, suffice to say, many.
Out of breath, and with a stitch in my side, I crawled into the fetal position among a group of statues who, instead of being in dance, were huddled together as if some terrible grief had befallen them. Their grief, written horribly on their contorted faces, stared down upon my naked body amidst them. Their sorrow was horrible to look at, but they formed a perfect circle about me, and I felt safe, ringed by them.
I remained still and quiet, and listened. Did it hunt me? Yes, I’m sure it did.
Looking away from the heartbroken faces, I looked to the ceiling and at the fresco painted there.
In it, a man and a woman stood by a tree. The man was carving a word into the tree. The painter had caught him finishing the job, and now the chisel hung at his side.
The woman stood beside the man with a resolute look on her face. She looked out to sea, or more precisely, a harbor beyond a thin strip of white sand that could be seen through a heavily wooded shoreline.
In the harbor, there were a number of rowboats; each piled high with provisions. The muscles of the rowers were tensed and hard, and could clearly be seen bulging as the men pulled at their oars. The rower’s destinations were two ancient sailing ships. Both ships had their sails set in various states of readiness. It was clear that these ships were about to sail.
A few yards to the left of the man and woman, playing in the dirt, was a small child. She was a grubby little thing, and she was pulling at the hair of a rather stoic, black dog.
I stared in amazement. Because suddenly, the dog’s coat pulsed with a sudden flare of white, and then, just as suddenly, settled back into the stillness of the fresco, as the painter had originally intended.
But there was no doubt. The dog in the fresco was Lincoln.
* * *
Later, as I made my way back toward the pool, I wondered if the flash of light had come from the image of Lincoln or from the sudden flash of inspiration that came to me upon seeing it.
Because of the word the man had carved into the tree, I knew the place in the fresco, and I knew its moment in American history. It was one of America’s greatest mysteries. How Lincoln came to be there, I dare not say, but to the mysterious word, I can:
C R O A T O A N
But more importantly, I now knew where I had hidden Scudamour’s letters.