Return to Wormwood
My return to Wormwood was a long one. Twice I lost my way, the first time, along a short corridor: I discovered it catty-cornered within a small alcove against the wall at the far end of the building.
The corridor, lined with a sack-like material that I believed to be scrim, was long with two turns, one to the right, and the other to the left. Scrim is an old-fashioned wall covering, once used during the early twentieth and late nineteenth centuries as a base onto which wallpaper is adhered. I only mention the scrim here because of what happened later, when I retraced my steps.
The same strange process that lit the ballrooms was also present here, but I found it more disconcerting in the narrow space than in that of the vastness of the ballrooms. The light in the corridor seemed to stretch and distort the narrow space, giving it the appearance of a much longer and much wider area, than it really was.
The corridor led me to a bedroom.
In the bedroom, there was a bed. On one side of the bed, a small bookcase filled with children’s books squatted squarely as if it were a sad, untouched, and lonely toad. On the other side, there was a bedside table with a few trinkets upon it: toys and such; all of them randomly scattered across its scratched wooden top.
Opposite the bed, on the far side of the room, there was a big rectangular wardrobe. It was tall, and looked to be quite stern with an almost militaristic stance, bearing down upon the room as if en guard. A sentinel, if you will: straight, proper, rigid, and ready.
Its doors were metal grey; and were clasped tightly together by a large brass-embossed lock; it reminded me of a steel animal trap. I glanced warily at the thing – it looked ready to pounce and overwhelm the foolish traveler. The wardrobe gave the whole room an air of ‘being watched,’ and I felt uncomfortable just standing before it. An impressive brass key jutted from its lock.
Cautiously, I went to the wardrobe and turned its key. It didn’t quite fit, and clunked uselessly in the lock. I removed the key and looked at it – it wasn’t damaged, so I reinserted the key, and tried again. Nope! It was the wrong key.
I pulled on the wardrobe’s handles, but its doors would not budge, not one inch. I was disappointed, not that I’d expected to find Narnia in there (but it had crossed my mind), no, it was something a little more mundane and practical that I was after – I wanted just few items of clothing – some pants, a coat, anything would do, really. I thought about taking a sheet or blanket from the bed, but something nagged at the back of my mind in doing that – leaving a bed unmade – just seemed somehow wrong, so I let it go, and I remained naked.
I turned toward the bed and looked longingly at it. I could not remember when I had last slept. At the rental, I think. I was sorely tempted to lie down, but unlike Goldilocks, I thought better of it. I knew I was not alone down here, and if was to encounter that slinking creature that had chased me through the ballrooms, I’d rather do it awake than asleep. In the end, the officious, unfriendly wardrobe decided it for me. I did not want to stay in this room – for I felt, if I remained to sleep, then I would never leave.
I looked about the room for another lock in which to try the wardrobe’s key, but could find none, and disappointed, I left the key where I found it.
For a moment, I stood dumbly in the room, doing nothing but stare vacantly about, and then, as if compelled (or pushed), made my way back to the place I had come from.
And, during my exit, as I went down the corridor, I stopped in surprise. I had not noticed it at first, but halfway down, I realized that the scrim was gone. The corridor was now plastered, and clear of any material. The hall’s new off-yellow color, helped to brighten the space considerably, but where had the scrim gone? And that was not all. The floor had changed too. Instead of marble, it was now a polished, light-colored wood. I paused for a long time here and weighed my options. The hallway was very different now, and I wondered if I had missed a door and was now actually in a different corridor.
I remembered the corridor to have been quite long, and with a number of turns in it, and as I stood and looked about, I decided that the length of it did seem correct, and so, nervously, I continued down its length. Thankfully, within a minute, I emerged back into the same ballroom I had originally left. I remembered this ballroom because the fresco on its ceiling was a particularly beautiful one: It was of two hunters: an incredibly handsome, young man and an older, barrel-chested, thickset, rather ugly man were taking aim at an enormous grazing wildebeest. I guessed, by the gun-type (a large caliber rifle), and the men’s pithy hats and clothing, that this was Africa; animals I am not good at — I assumed the creature in their gun-sight to be a wildebeest, for that is the only ruminating bovine animal-type in Africa, I know of.
In this fresco, a stunning sunset was their backdrop. The yellow and reds of the setting sun filled the entire room, bathing the elegant dancers beneath it in soft gold. It gave their deathly, pale unearthliness life; it was surreal — for I could see a reddish hue in them, as if blood actually pumped in their veins.
* * *
My second error was one in which I thought I could not extract myself, thinking I would be trapped in this place forever – for you see, there was no outside, and the building itself, went on and on, without end; of this I am quite sure.
In one of the ballrooms (for this is what I called them), the dancers, some holding hands, were all captured at the end of a dance. They were making their way outside, out onto a wide portico, through fine, lace-curtained, French doors. I was curious, and walked passed them, and went out onto the portico. But it was not a portico per se, but a wide, barren, plain of nothing. By nothing, I mean just that: nothing.
To make sense of it, I walked for several minutes outward, and away from the French doors. It was dark out there, and I made sure to look back toward the emerging statues and the odd diffused light there that I had left behind. The ground I walked upon seemed smooth and without blemish, polished almost. Touching it with my hand, I felt it neither hot nor cold. Its sensation on my hand was indeterminate, like linoleum, as opposed to stone, alabaster, or wood. Its color, in the darkness, was nonexistent.
Keeping a wary eye on my open French doors, I continued to walk directly outwards. Soon, the blackness completely enveloped me, and when I turned back towards the French doors, they were gone. I had walked too far!
I turned and hurried back the way I thought I had come, but with the darkness so complete, I saw nothing ahead. With my heart racing, I stopped. I stood for a long while, assessing my situation, and panic, I decided, was not helping me.
Slowly, standing in place, I turned on the spot, three-hundred-and-sixty degrees – and saw… nothing!
I felt a ferocious fear rise in my chest, for my sense of direction was completely gone now, and as if in effort to squelch that fear, I knelt to the ground. How long I squatted there I could not tell you, only, I know I was very close to tears. Fear elicits a powerful incentive to run and scream – but by taking deep, even breaths, I somehow held it together.
In the hope that my eyes had now adjusted to the dark, I decided to try once more.
I stood up straight, put my feet together, and concentrated on my position. Then, very slowly, I once more began a three-hundred-and-sixty degree turn.
As I turned, I imagined what I would see: a soft bubble of light – I expected it to be very faint, barely the glow of a firefly, at best – but see it, I would. And then, at the two-hundred-seventy degree mark – just like that — there it was!
I hurried toward the light, half-afraid it would disappear, and it occurred to me that just perhaps, I had made this happen. It was an odd thought, and a complicated one, because it ascribed a special kind of self-creation or some sort of weird, almost-unconscious control over what I was seeing. And it troubled me to think this, because this building: with its mysterious, visceral frescos; its polished, marbled floors, and its alabaster, grey-colored statues; its fine, stitched tapestries; and its overwhelming, overbearing vastness, seemed to me, to be the freakish universal terminus of mankind’s entire existence. And so, who was I to walk its endless ballrooms? Who was I to see the things the great building hid by the jurisprudence of its mystifying, intangible luminescence? Who was I? I, the murderer — who was I to dare? And who was I to wield some telekinetic power over this extraordinary thing? Indeed, I felt, the building itself, to be analogous to a living gelatinous thing. A jellyfish of sorts, which if glimpsed under a microscope, could easily be representative of some aberrant cellular life form, drawing little energized snippets of the world into itself and trapping them here, and to it, to the jellyfish, these snapshots are sustenance.
It is difficult to articulate these suspicions, because I felt quite comfortable in the stomach of this strange beast – a traveler only – for unconsumed I remain, but I now seemed to know what to expect, and if I did not, could expect to expect it.
But telekinetic control? Lilith would know. If I ever saw her again, I would ask about this place. She would know the answer, I think.
I came up to the portico and the French doors, with thanks; I even smiled at the statues as I walked by them, and came into the ballroom proper. I was almost tempted to joke with them — there was nothing out there for them – really, nothing, but I held my tongue. I was giddy with my success but not so foolhardy to tempt fate and alert the creature that lurked about down here with me. And thinking about the creature, realized that I should not think about it at all. Telekinesis? Telepathy? Whateverpathy? If I could pretend the beast did not exist – then it could not… could it?
I continued onward, deciding to make my way back to the water. As I passed from tapestry to tapestry, I kept close to the statues. I did not trust my newfound power over the building and so, if I did encounter the beast, I would use the statues as cover. I could climb them, if I had to, or use them as a shield. Obviously, at that time, I was not thinking clearly, for I had no idea what I was actually up against, stealth was my first defense, and looking back, and knowing my complete nakedness, it was my only defense.
After what seemed like hours, I found my way back to the room with the pool. I had no idea how to get out of this place, but felt that the way I had come in to it, may actually be my only way out of it. How I was to accomplish this though, I had no idea.
I knelt at the pool’s edge and studied the water; it was dark, but clear. Its tiled walls slid downward into the water for several feet, before disappearing from view. If there were fish-people down there, then I could not see them.
I listened carefully for the sounds of footsteps or the ‘swish-swish’ of the beast, and with the assurance of hearing nothing, leaned all the way over and gently submerged my face into the water. I opened my eyes, blinking as I did so, and looked to see what I could see: very little, it seemed; for the water was deep, and the view was as if I were looking into a cool, deep ocean. And oh, how the sun fragmented its depths into octopus arms! They reached up from the abyss below, grasping at the thin, scant, and gangly strands of light that filtered down from the enigmatic, floating light of the room above. I looked and I looked, and then I looked some more, all the while, blinking. I saw no fish-people, only an abyss with no bottom below. And seeing nothing there, and seeing an abyss, I was frightened — and yet, exhilarated, for in seeing nothing, I saw something: my own ungodly fear of the unknown.
I told myself I was a long way from some uncharted, oceanic void, but this platitude did not help — and as my eyes blinked and smarted in the water, I found myself becoming profoundly depressed by what I saw, or rather, did not see. It was momentary, and I fought it. My physiatrist at the hospital, had taught me ways to combat this type of depression, and before it could take hold of me, I was able to break its dark, awful spell.
I pulled my face from the water and rested my head upon the nearest pillar, not wanting to admit that my only way out of this place was through this pool.
Beware of the water, Lilith had said.
I laid my cheek against the pillar, and wished I could sleep.
Suddenly, I started up. Without really looking at it, I had been staring at the tile closest my right eye — and up close, I saw that its etching was not what I thought it to be. Up close, what I thought to be a red colored butterfly, was no butterfly at all, but the…
OH GOD! I quailed, pulling away in horror. I stared in disbelief at other tiles about the pool. OH MY GOD! They were not butterflies at all…, but my red handled nail-puller – but instead of one nail-puller, there were two – and placed head-to-head, and at a distance, they gave the appearance of a butterfly!
OH GOD! HELP ME!
* * *
I’m not sure how long I lay there sobbing, but I know it was an appallingly long time. My stealth, my silence: I had long forgotten, and if the beast had come for me then, I would have welcomed it.
There was nowhere to go from here, and I decided that despair begets nothing at all (or in the least — self-pity – and that was next to good-for-nothing), and if I was to leave this strange place, I should do it sooner rather than later.
Gingerly, I slipped into the water. The temperature was tolerable and I splashed a little, wetting my hair.
There was no sign of the fish-people, and I vowed that if they did come, I would not resist them. Kill me if they will – I could accept death now. While I did not understand this place, or Wormwood, or Lilith, or the rest, I saw no point in surviving. I was not suicidal, I think; but more, simply resigned to let this strange circumstance take me where it wished and fight it no more – for Scudamour had already taken all that really mattered to me, so surely then, at Fates-hand, be it death or something other, it could not be kinder to me than just killing me outright. Then I’d be done with the lot of it.
I ducked under the water and swam downward a few feet. I looked for whatever access, ledge or tunnel, the fish-people had dragged me through, to bring me into this place, but I saw nothing obvious.
The pool was about forty by twenty feet in size. Not a small pool, but not a large pool, either.
I remained by the pool’s side, gripping its tiled edge. I avoiding looking at the motif on the tile (not an easy thing to do), but keeping hold of the edge, I made my way about the pool’s perimeter. Every three or four feet, I ducked under the water, looking for an exit. By the time I returned to my starting point, I had found nothing.
I was perplexed, and decided that the exit must be deeper down. So, with my heart beating, I swam out into the middle of the pool. Here, I would have the best vantage of the entire pool: its sides and its bottom (if there was one), should all be clearly visible.
I blew the air from out of lungs, and using as little energy as possible, let myself sink. I had no idea how deep the pool was; but when the pressure built in my ears, I knew that I had gone at least ten feet. I blew more air from out of my lungs and dropped a few more feet.
Suspended, I used my hands as a rotor, and rotated slowly about. The water was crystal clear at this depth; and from my position, I had a good view of the entire pool, save its bottom. But look as I might, I could still not see an opening. There was nothing, no cave, no underwater ledge, no tunnel, no nothing — just tile – all the way down…
And still, I could see no bottom.
But looking down, just below my feet, I noticed a soft, reddish light. This ruddiness seemed to hover beneath me — not physically close, I think, but rather, it emanated round my toes giving me the impression that it was closer than it really was.
I was running out of air, and I needed to go back to the surface, but bless my curiosity, for I had just a few more seconds remaining; I decided to use them by dropping down a few more feet, and to determine the source of the red light.
I went down, and then an odd thing — the red light enveloped me, surrounding me so completely that I questioned my very buoyancy, for looking up, the white light emanating from the surface, had now disappeared.
About me and round me, I saw only red. It’s as if I were caught in a red, wriggling bubble – and blood, was the first thing that came to my mind – but no, it was not blood, but a strange manifestation of the light itself. Because, diffused in the particulate of the water, it glowed as if it lived, and I actually felt it crawling over my skin like a balled up bundle of nested snakes. And here, I suppose, I should have been terrified, but no, somehow I remained eerily calm. The crawling red light massaged my skin as if it were a balm: it soothed me; it healed me; and within it, baptized me anew.
Somewhere in the red distance, I felt the pressure of the water upon me, and so I knew I was still down deep. But my sense of gravity had fallen away, and I did not know which way was up, or which way was down, but what did I care? Cradled in the soft red embrace, limp as a puppet, I floated supine — I was the lover of the blood red creature now, and I slipped into sleep, finally…
Lilith’s words came to my mind, “Beware of the water, exnzpat.”
Lilith! I could hear her again, and by this, I mean, I really could hear her speaking in my head again! And her voice roused me to action.
With a great shudder, I shook the gentle action of the red, worming, red light from me. The red-thing had so lulled me; I think I had slept. I was more than a little startled, and I sputtered, realizing where I was, and from my cheeks, I drew the last morsel of air trapped in there, drew it into my lungs, and then kicked for the surface.
The strange globule of blood-red-light gave way to the filtered, white light from above, and seeing it, I pushed all the more harder for it.
Without warning, I exploded from out of the water and filled my strained lungs with air.
Shaking my head and hair, I opened my eyes and swum for the edge of the pool. I grasped hold and looked about.
Lilith was sitting where I left her, and the freakishly giant mountain hovered ungraciously in the sky above her. At Lilith’s back, the slowly bloating sun continued to swallow the sky before it.
I was back!
And I wondered: should I be surprised? And if I were to be surprised, would it do me any good?
I slipped out of the water, noticing the tile again – it was the same tile – the deceptive dual nail-pullers, head-to-head, giving the appearance of a butterfly.
“How is the water, exnzpat?” Lilith enquired.
“Not good,” I answered, skipping naked to executionerofthewill’s Armani suit, and began to dress.
“I told you to beware of the water, exnzpat, did I not?”
I didn’t answer right away. Instead, I looked about, realizing little had changed in my absence. The sun had not moved, but already, I considered this sun to be an untrustworthy timepiece.
“Lilith, how long have I been gone?”
Lilith’s smile was that of a crooked grimace. The rot that had taken hold of her body had reached her neck, and pain was visible in her face because of the effort.
“Only you can answer that question, exnzpat. Have you not heard: three of Time and one of Space?”
I said nothing for a long minute, looking at her; and then said, “Lilith, you look terrible.”
“My time in this form is short, exnzpat. I will soon be consumed.”
“I’m sorry,” I said with my mind, “is there anything I can do?”
“Just… just look after Lincoln.” She said, turning away to gaze up at the mountain above us.
I buttoned my shirt and walked across the dais. I called to Lincoln: “Lincoln? Here boy!”
“Lincoln came bounding up the steps to greet me. Becky, her hair pulled back, and knotted with a piece of cloth, followed him. She was holding my wet jacket for me to take. “Thanks for that. John said I should be fine now.”
Becky looked back towards the old man.
John was sitting where I had seen him last. He stared intently into the engorged eye of the setting sun. He did not look up at me, instead, he waved without turning; he was concentrating on the sun, as if looking, or listening for something.
“So, you’re better?” I said to Becky, not knowing what else to say.
“I am; it still hurts.” She touched the side of her head lightly, “John said the darkness has passed me by, though.”
“That’s an odd way of putting it.”
Lincoln was pulling on my pant leg with his teeth, pulling me in the direction of the pool and Lilith.
“Hmmm, I suppose it is,” Becky shrugged, “But this place, John, you, Lilith, and the dog, are anything but normal.” And then, changing the subject, Becky asked, “I see you’ve been swimming, how’s the water?”
“Dangerous. Some weird fish-shaped people dragged me down into an old mansion-type house. It had some weird paintings in it.”
I waited for a response but she was staring at Lilith.
“You were in some of the paintings,” I added, wanting her attention back on me.
“What’s wrong with her?”
“Lilith? Oh, I don’t know. She’s getting worse – especially since we’ve been here. It started out in her foot and is going up her body.”
If Becky was listening, she didn’t acknowledge it. Ignoring me, she walked over to Lilith. Lincoln followed her, and I was left holding the wet jacket in my hands.
I looked back at John. He seemed completely transfixed by the setting sun, almost if he were communing with it, and he very may well have been, for all I knew.
I laid the jacket out on the top step of the dais to dry, and followed Becky and Lincoln back to Lilith.
I saw Becky lean over and speak to Lilith, and I presumed, asked her of her condition. Lincoln pushed his big, hairy body between them, and slumped down; his mouth was open and his tongue lolled like a pink sausage. He licked at Lilith’s knee and then peered curiously into the water, and I half expected him to dip his head to drink from it, but he did not. Lilith petted him gently, and he closed his eyes in enjoyment of her touch.
As I came closer, I heard Lilith say, “It’s like changing skins; or like vomit, Becky. In the beginning, I received this gnaw upon my heel. To this day, I am poisoned. I am cursed. The affliction mellows from time to time, as you have just seen, but after a short while, my aberration returns. By nightfall it will be worse — and this manifestation — will be all that remains of me.”
“But you have pain,” said Becky, a look of concern creased her pretty face. She reached to touch Lilith, but Lilith, seeing this, pulled back.
“What are you doing, you little fool? Don’t touch me – only Lincoln touches me!”
“Hey Okay, I’m sorry,” Becky said angrily, her feelings hurt.
I interjected, “Becky was only trying to help, Lilith.”
Lilith, turning with difficulty to look at me, said, “What do you know of pain, exnzpat?”
I didn’t answer her, because I thought her question to be a cruel one, and she could go to Hell: because she knows I do know real pain; but looking at her, up close, I was more shocked than offended by her words. She had changed. She was regressing into the monster I had first met: first at the asylum, and then at the rental. Her beauty, that that had accompanied me on our walk across the dunes, was now only a thing of memory. Even in the few short minutes since I had walked to the steps of the dais and called to Lincoln, she had changed.
Her whole right side was now infected, but more: across her abdomen, it crept like a vine. The disease crawled across her whole body like ivy upon an English Manor, devouring her marvelously perfect skin, as it went. But it did not stop there, for the disease was taking a shape and a form of its own making. It was not skin-deep. I saw that it was actually pushing at, and rearranging, the bones of her face. Lilith was becoming the bizarre bird-like, angel-like creature, I had first known.
It was horrific to watch: something so gorgeous, collapsing so pathetically, into something…
“Don’t pity me, exnzpat! Never pity me! Not you.” She said this, reading my mind.
Aloud, Lilith said to us both, “Would you like to know? Would you like to understand?”
“Yes,” Becky said immediately; she sat down next to Lincoln, and I watched with a sort of fascinated concern, as Becky took off a shoe and dangled her foot in the water; she then did the same with the other.
“Uh… Becky you may not want to do that – there are things in there.”
“Yes – they might drag you in.”
Becky looked doubtfully into the water, and feeling its coolness on her feet, dismissed me with, “I’ll take my chances, executioner… I mean,” she corrected herself, “exnzpat,” and then looked quizzically into my eyes, just to be sure.
I sat down next to Lilith. She let me take her hand in mine, and I held it tightly, she forgot, I think, her earlier chastisement of Becky — only Lincoln touches me.
“That’s not true, is it?”
Lilith did not reply.
The growth that infused Lilith – hurt her deeply. In my mind I could feel her agony – but not as a physical thing. It was like a roaring, grinding, screaming, banging thing. It was something that one can only hear in the far off distance, something beyond the forest — beyond the trees. It was a great and mighty sound, and I knew that with all her power, she kept it from me, and that is why I took her hand. She was protecting me.
We three sat: Becky, Lincoln, and I, and we waited for Lilith to speak. I looked into the water myself, expecting to see my building there, but there was nothing. Becky’s feet rippled the water, making it quiver in the sinking light. My jellyfish and its weird protoplasmic world below seemed to be a universe away, if it had ever been there at all.
And we waited. And I looked to Lilith and was suddenly reminded of something from the Bible: “Wait with me. Pray with me – for I hear them coming – and I am afraid!”
After a few minutes of silence, where the only sound was the splashing of Becky’s feet in the water, and Lincoln’s steady panting and the occasional sound of him wetting his chops, Lilith began her story.