The Emperor, the Silver Needle and the Grim Reaper’s Heart
I dream in my dream all the dreams of the other dreamers,
And I become the other dreamers.
—Walt Whitman, “THE SLEEPERS”
His stories I never asked for but Death gave them anyway. He told me about the lives he had encountered (and deemed worth remembering). He told me about the various places I had never heard of, let alone visited, about the magnificent wonders of both nature’s and humans’ hands. Bedtime treats he sometimes called them, sometimes gifts, since he “felt bad” for going to someone’s house empty-handed. Other times, he called them tributes to the “sulky” little host that had generously allowed him a spot to stay for the freezing, lonely night. Whatever they were, to my pleasant surprise, they lulled me to peaceful, dreamless sleep despite all the aches and bruises littering along my body.
Regular as a clockwork, my daily routine – running errands by day and pleasing the lords by night, then hobbling home with feet sore and bodies sorer, to be greeted by the sight of a stranger-maybe. With so much as a wave of his hand, Death gave me the small luxury of hot water in the middle of the night. Then he would watch me rid myself off the aristocratic filths clinging to my motley skin, pale, silent eyes roaming back and forth between the smoke-veiled space and its sole owner. Then he would tuck me in and, if I still hadn’t found sleep, he would find a chance for his one-man show. At the end of the night, he would always kissed me goodnight before taking his much-procrastinated leave. It wasn’t long before I began to take his kiss for granted; he gave it for free and I took it freely, as if it was the most conventional thing in the world.
Yet, that “most conventional thing in the world” had never occurred to Mommy Dearest, who had not, and would never have a sliver of knowledge that Death himself was under her roof night after night. Many a time I had entertained the idea of telling her, and pondered her reaction if she were to know. Would she think me mad? Would she freak out? Would she merely cover her mouth for a yawn, pull out her flask, find it long dry and send me to fetch her more? Still, like every good, docile child, I only conjured the notion, never putting it to action. I wouldn’t want Mother to lose her mind, no matter how alcohol-addled it was, would I?
Of course, my entertained thought never slipped past Death’s radar. He’d heard it several times and each time, he just shook his head and spoke the same thing over: “Divinity is not meant for mortals, for its sheer weight will squash them to comprehend it. We cloak ourselves and cover your ears for your own sake.”
What about me? I asked, out of logical thinking. Has I not already been squashed, having exposed to divinity by the careless Grim Reaper who couldn’t care less about another mortal losing their mind?
“Wow,” exclaimed Death. “But you are different though, child. I wasn’t thoughtless when I revealed myself to you. I had known beforehand that you would take it with unique nonchalance, without losing your mind like most other mortals.”
What makes me different? Care to share?
“You’ll know. In time.”
He said it with a wink and a smile softer than cotton candy. I hadn’t a taste of cotton candy for years and wished for it with all my little heart.
Then he kissed me.
Death’s lips were pleasant and gentle in their touch, vastly unlike those who had touched me before, touched me now and would continue to touch me in the future. As long as Mother lived.
How would his lips feel on my own, the thought strayed into my mind at some point. Quickly it vaporized like the smoke from Death’s fags.
Why are you always here when the clock strikes midnight?
“Because I am…” Death said, shrugging, “…deadly puncture.”
A screen of scented smoke obscured his wide grin.
You know that isn’t the point.
“Pray tell, what is the point?”
I tried my sternest look and that might work on him since Death’s grin was reduced to a baffled smile and he held up his hands in defeat.
“Because I fancy you very much.” Death looked me in the eyes, his pale irises giving hint of faint red light. “Does that answer your question?”
No. I was tempted to project but the way he said it so silkily halted me. On one hand he made it sound as if there was nothing bizarre about a godly entity taking a liking to a mere mortal. Yet on the other, it was strange, so very strange.
Still he spoke of it, of fondness and perhaps affection, so bluntly, so honestly.
I felt a needle’s prick under my cold skin.
“You must think me one of those depraved souls?”
Like the first time he’d raised such question, I didn’t disagree; at the same time, I didn’t quite agree either.
Death had touched me, true, but so far he’d only been touching me with his lips, chastely at best, while others had ravaged me with most parts of their body.
Most parts except their lips.
No, I conveyed to him. As a matter of fact, I can’t tell whether you have a soul. Do you?
“Well, isn’t it a very human concept, ‘soul’? You came up with a name for the incomprehensible what-ever that moved your body, directed your actions and formed your thoughts and such.”
So do divine entities have that incomprehensible what-ever that moves their bodies, directs their actions and forms their thoughts?
“I suppose they do.”
Death smiled and took a lungful of his fag. By this time I’d gotten too familiar with the narcotic scent in the air that I would question if one morning I woke up not smelling it.
Although I thought I knew the brand, I never quite figured it out.
Silence stretched between us as Death was consuming his nicotine while I was sitting unmoving on my bed.
Death took me by surprise when out of the blue he pushed me down the mattress. The act wasn’t violent and before I could form a speculation of his next, Death pulled the cover up to my chest and tucked me neatly in.
Death had a natural talent for babysitting. I gave him that.
“Time for children to go to sleep.”
When he bent down to give me his goodnight kiss like usual, I startled myself by reaching out to tug his cuff.
Death shot me a half-surprised, half-amused look, stopping in his track.
No bedtime story? I thought you promised me.
An elegant eyebrow arched comically and Death grinned.
“Almost forgot. You must pardon my senility.”
Death sat down the edge and his thigh came in contact with my shoulder. Warmth seeped through the costly fabric into my veins. I wanted to bathe in it. I wanted to bathe in Death.
Till I drowned in him.
I had learned the trick to keep the thoughts to myself and not projecting it when I wished to share.
“At the beginning of mankind, there was an empire,”’with his liquid voice laced with a hint of semi-lisp, Death began.“The empire stretched from East to West, from North to South, from heaven to ground. The world at that time was only one nation, and ruling that nation was an emperor. The emperor, actually. Divine Emperor his subjects called him, and they worshipped him like mortals did a true god. It wasn’t long before the Emperor began to think himself as the only God of the universe…’
And the gods punished him?
Because Greek gods and Christian God certainly would. I’d thoroughly devoured the dog-eared, yellow-paged story books of Janek at the age of five. Janek had taught me to read. He’d been a kind, patient teacher… Drunk, most of the times, yet still kind and patient. I supposed kindness and patience were luxuries in a drunkard. Had seen many of them to reach this conclusion.
“First time I’ve heard you during the story.”
It surprised me too, as usually I just listened to his soothing voice and got lulled to sleep without making any comments. Wasn’t that the purpose of bedtime stories?
“No, my little one. There was no god and there never will be.”
What are you then?
“Have I ever claimed that I am a god? I am Death and that’s just it.”
You spoke of yourself as ‘divine entity’.
“A divine entity is not a god. There’s a difference.”
What’s the difference?
“As far as I’m concerned my one hell of a boss is considered divine, but he’s no god. Say he is and you’ll never see the light of day again.”
He got a point. I shut up.
“I do appreciate when you join me in my stories though,” Death grinned. “Where were we? Ah, the emperor… Gods never punished him – there was none. But prosperous as it was, his reign didn’t last long. Soon the Divine Emperor found himself devastatingly close to death.”
There was a strange slip in his tone when Death referred to himself as “Death”. I noticed but did not voice my thought.
“The Divine Emperor wished not to die – who with something to lose would, really? He still had an endless empires to rule and unlimited pleasures to indulge. And he was still young. Too young.”
I could almost relate to the Emperor. Almost. If I’d had his possessions, perhaps I wouldn’t have been so welcome to Death’s presence in our first encounter.
“A wise one told him there was hope of averting death, gaining immortality even…”
Long, lean fingers with faint water scent massaged my scalp when I lifted my head slightly in unconscious curiosity.
“It was said that putting a silver needle under the pillow would dismiss Death’s spell. And…”
As if to demonstrate, tendrils of smoke curled around lean fingers in a four-inch needle-shape.
“And when Death claimed its victim soul with a kiss, the Emperor could stab the needle in its heart.”
Strange was his usage of possessive adjective.
And that’d kill Death? I asked.
Death nodded calmly; in his right hand appeared a realistic-looking smoke heart, which was soon pierced through by the smoke needle in his left.
Can Death die?
“Of course. Nothing is truly immortal. Not a god, remember?”
Such knowledge is kind of disappointed.
And Death smiled but for once, the smile didn’t quite reach his eyes.
“Death saw through the Emperor’s intention. How foolish he was,” Death’s tone took a turn in mockery, “for no human’s thought was secret to Death.”
My heart skipped a beat. For once I was grateful that I was mute, otherwise I would stammer.
Did he, no, did the Emperor succeed? The question was stupid; I asked anyway.
The smoke heart and needle dissolved in his palms and his fingers seized my chin, more gently than needed, so that I saw my own reflection in wine-colored irises.
His irises were blazing.
His lips moved and his voice was close to a purr.
“I am here.”
The stark contrast of the solemnity in his gaze and the sensuality in his voice had me entranced and I didn’t realize I was staring until Death grinned and the air of mystique around him dispersed.
That’s it? I managed to find my thought.
“That’s it,” Death shrugged. “I don’t tell fiction, only truth. And truth sometimes is terribly short and bland.”
That I agreed.
And truth is, I’m not feeling sleepy.
Death grinned and lowered his head to give me his goodnight kiss.
“After this kiss, you will, I promise.”
I didn’t protest. Soon as his last syllable faded out, my eyelids felt stony.
That night, a dream, after a long time of absence, visited me.
I dreamed about an empire that stretched from East to West, from North to South, and from heaven to ground. I dreamed about an emperor whose subjects worshiped as the only God of the universe, whose age too young and power too vast. I dreamed about his impending demise, and his despair and vain struggle to fight it.
Strangely enough, the Divine Emperor’s countenance was dissonantly similar to Death’s. Was there some displacement here?
I dreamed about a hooded figure with a single raven wing. The feathers were smooth and glistened as if they were dipped in oil; so beautiful it had to be alone. Though the face was concealed, I had an immense feeling I knew what was hidden in the shadow of the hood, only the memory was too vague to draw a link to an identity.
I dreamed about the raven wing being ripped from the back, its shiny feathers scattering like black snow. The hooded figure mutilated themselves, there was no doubt.
Lastly, I dreamed about a silver needle and a bleeding heart.
Red bled out like a blooming Manjusaka and drown my dream before I could get to the end.
I have this friend since secondary school and we’ve remained friends since. Though we aren’t studying in the same college – she wanted to become a technician while I opted for linguistic – we’ve found numerous ways to stay in contact and keep our long-lived friendship from “desiccating” – to quote her beloved lexical item from a vampire show we both watch. Did I just mention a vampire show? Yes, one effective way for us to meet on regular basis despite both our hectic schedules of senior year is our TV weekends, where she brings in greasy snacks from a nearby fast-food stall and I prepare the latest episodes from all our favorite shows. Then we would lounge all day on the soft-cushioned couch and enjoying our exclusive privilege of youth indolence while increasing our cholesterol level by munching on unhealthy fries and gulping down extra-large sized Cokes.
This Sunday was one such day.
We began the day religiously like any other Sundays: she came bearing a humongous pack of fries plus Coke and as soon as I hit the “Play” button, she plopped down on the cushy seat, putting her elegantly long legs on the low glass table. The day went fine and so engulfed we were in the shows that I never noticed it had already been four and a half in the afternoon, around the time my mom would get back from her shift at the hospital. As if on cue, just when the thought popped in my mind, the gate creaked and opened, revealing my mother in her casual kind of crumpled clothes, her hair an essential mess poorly disguising itself in a bun and dim grey circles around her eyes. She gave a little nod to my ubiquitous greeting of “Mom” and went straight into the kitchen, not sparing a briefest glance at my friend. Having witnessed her rather unusual behavior, I was bewildered. That was so unlike my mother, who, as it was her job at the hospital, was warm and friendly in spite of her weariness after an eight-hour intense shift. She would smile at my friend, albeit weakly, and offered some frozen fruit snack (which we would definitely decline anyway due to our full bellies). But not today. Today her tired eyes had glided over me as if there had been only thin air around me where my friend was. Even stranger was that my friend was seemingly unaffected by my mother’s demeanor.
I leaped from the couch and went into the kitchen. There I found my mother sitting by the counter, slurping some peach juice she probably had found in a half-full carton box.
“Mom,” I called.
She raised her head and replied, “Yes dear?”
“You went straight into the kitchen when you got home?”
Mom raised an eyebrow, questioning. “So?” she asked dubiously.
“Normally you’d offer to make us some fruit though you know we’d decline anyway.”
“Us?” She sounded surprised, which had me confused as well. “Silly dear, you know I only offer to make that snack because your friend’s here. You’ve despised my frozen fruit snack sinc—”
“What?” It was my turn to be bewildered. “But my friend’s here and you just went straight past us as if you hadn’t seen her.”
“Who’s here, tell me again.”
Her bloodshot eyes went wide as she said, “I saw no-one but you on the couch, grabbing your greasy fries in one hand and the remote control in the other, eyes gluing to the TV with that vampire show that seems to go on forever.”
“You’re lying, Mom,” I almost shouted in my failure to grasp this unexpected turn of event. “Sybil’s been here with me for the entire morning and afternoon. She’s still out there.”
A deep crease manifested between her hazel eyebrows as she replied, rather tautly, “I am not lying, dear. Why should I be? I saw only you, not Sybil on that couch. If Sybil had been there I would have seen her already.”
“But I’m not lying either,” claimed I in a frustrated tone.
“I’m not saying you’re lying, dear,” she soothed me with her gentle voice and living gestures, the way she was so used to treating her uncomfortable patients. “I only say maybe you’re a little tired and have been a bit imaginativ—”
“Come Mom,” I huffed, trying to make it sound like a firm order, and, without finishing her sentence, she grudgingly stood from her seat and followed me out of sheer indulgence.
When we were in the living room again, Sybil was laughing hard at something on the screen.
“Where have you been, Sid? You missed the fun part. Should we rewind it?”
“See Mom?” I said with a note of confidence etched into my tone. “Sybil is not my imagination, isn’t she?”
“Hey Sid, why are you talking to thin air? Come and watch with me,” Sybil said from the couch.
So overjoyed by the news of his estranged daughter’s return that Lord William Bloodworth failed to ask the reason for Helen’s sudden change of heart. It had been almost a year since that fateful evening, after which he had not gotten a single word from his beloved daughter. Only recently had he received a telegraph saying that she had returned to London and wanted to stay for a while, perhaps a few months. William was more than pleased to receive her; this was, after all, the house where she had grown up. After his death, which he suspected would come in a few years’ time, perhaps even less, this manor would lawfully belong to her, together with his lands and title.
And so overjoyed by her presence that William could not bring himself to question the father of the child in her womb, soon to be brought to this world. Whosever it was, he reminded himself again and again in the silence of the evenings, watching Helen reading a book or dozing on the rocking chair by the fireplace, it was his daughter’s flesh and blood and thus, his own flesh and blood. He would give it the world once it was born, as he had given its mother. Helen would forgive him eventually, speak to him, and they would be a happy family, the three of them, once again.
Her child’s birth was due a week after her return, on a stormy night. Lord William Bloodworth paced anxiously outside the room, lighting cigarette after cigarette as he listened to Helen’s heart-wrenching cries on the other side of the wall. Time seemed to turn back to the night Helen had arrived to this world, also a stormy and thunderous like this night. For the second time in his long life the relatively atheistic nobleman sent a prayer to God.
The wails of the baby were heavenly music in William’s ears. Outside the room, the old man burst into tears.
It was a boy, a beautiful boy with large, black eyes like polished obsidian. William felt love for this little angel the moment he saw his image reflected in those mirror-like eyes.
He had come up with a thousand names for his lovely grandson; however, the one that Helen chose was never on that list. He had thought he would never hear that name again in the rest of his life. How devastatingly wrong he was.
“Adrian Augustine,” Helen nonchalantly uttered the name as she hugged her wailing son to her bosoms, “his name is Adrian Augustine Bloodworth.”
These were also the first words she had spoken to him upon her return. His beautiful Helen, cold and mute as the idol of Mary in the church.
“Ad–Adrian Augustine?” William stammered, holding onto a sliver of hope that his old ears had deceived him.
“Yes, Adrian Augustine.” Unabashed, she opened her blouse, baring her round, full breasts to her father’s eyes. The baby’s little mouth instantly latched on her, hungry for the sweet milk she had to offer.
William averted his gaze.
“Why, Helen? Why such a name? Certainly there’s a plethora of names–”
“Because ‘Adrian Augustine’ is my son’s father’s name.”
The ground beneath Lord William Bloodworth’s feet crumpled.
The next time Lord William Bloodworth got to see his daughter and grandson, it was six years later.
Five months after the child’s birth, Helen left the manor no matter how William had begged her to stay. “He isn’t welcomed here,” said Helen, standing at the door. How picturesque they were, the beautiful young mother holding her beautiful baby in her arms. How pale they looked under the electric light, pale like marble and just as cold. Each of her words a painful stab to his aging heart. Her voice speaking to him in their scarce conversations was never less than cold, her eyes regarding him colder still. They only became softer, affectionate, and loving when laying upon her son, a truth William soon learned with bitterness. Her son with Adrian Augustine.
Even in death did that depraved fiend torture him. Snatched away what he loved more than life.
“I will love him,” he promised. “I will love him with all my heart. If only you give me a chance…”
“No, you won’t.” She shook her head. “The only thing you can give him will be hatred and contempt.”
And they both knew her curt words were the truth while his was only a lie. Had Lord William never known the child’s father, or had he been someone else’s son, a lawyer’s, a soldier’s, a merchant’s, even a thief’s, he would love his grandson dearly. Give him the world if he could. Perhaps God was punishing him for his life-long practice of atheism, and what was a more cruel punishment than making his grandson the child of Adrian Augustine?
Deep down inside, Lord William Bloodworth had always known. He had suspected, of course, the moment he saw her stepping down the coach, her voluminous clothes failing to hide her maternal figure. He was old, not stupid, and he had been there to witness their disastrous romance. Risked all he could have to destroy it. Still he had placed his hope on a thin chance that Helen’s child had been some other man’s other than the one whose name caused him constant pain and wrath. Having his daughter admitted to him only had proven his foolishness.
Helen and the baby were gone the next morning, and Lord William Bloodworth’s manor was cold and empty once more. Cold and empty as the tomb in his heart.
Throughout the years he had been hearing news about his daughter. She had come to the New World they said – hadn’t she always wanted to fly there and leave the Old World behind? New Orleans, he heard from his many friends and acquaintances, a beautiful French city where she had settled and might have married the current Governor. Perhaps not. Perhaps she had established her own business and thrived. Such a successful young woman. All rumors and never a letter, never a word from her.
That summer his sister Agatha passed away, and thanks to that (he was not delighted by her death in the least), he had a chance to see Helen again. Before her marriage to a duke half a country away, Agatha had always been close to her niece, and remained close after. Every summer she would have come to London to pay her brother a visit, bearing all sorts of country presents for her favorite and only niece. Half the globe away (if the rumor about her living in New Orleans was true) and somehow Helen had got the news and returned just in time to bid farewell to deer old Agatha. She looked young, possibly younger than he remembered her – an obvious sign of his failing memory – and extremely gorgeous even in the high-collar grim black dress and black veil. Motherhood had become her. Glued to her side was a beautiful little boy that arose many a question from those attending the funeral.
How time flew, Lord William thought, watching the mother and son from afar – something blocked him from coming to her and hugging her so tightly she would feel his ache for her. All the years passed only deepened the wedge between them, already too late to try to fix. He heard the guests speak to one another.
“Don’t they make a most charming picture?” one lady asked.
“Lord Bloodworth’s daughter, isn’t it? God, it is as if time has never touched her!” another remarked.
“She hasn’t got married, has she? That would make the boy illegitimate. A bastard!”
“Shush, lower your voice, they might hear! I heard due to this the father and daughter have been estranged for years. She was even willing to forfeit her title and inheritance! Lord Bloodworth must have been furious.”
“I wonder who fathered that son of hers. What sort of man was he to be able to turn her against Lord Bloodworth?”
“The boy’s father passed away years ago. Adrian Augustine or so I heard.”
A few audible gasps.
“It couldn’t have been that ‘Adrian Augustine’!”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, there was a prodigal violinist by that name about ten years ago. His music was so godly they said he had bargained his soul to the devil. Could he have begot Lord Bloodworth’s grandson?”
“Now that you talk about it, I do remember seeing that man once or twice. God forbid such a face! Who could blame her for falling for a man with the face of Adonis?”
“A shame Adrian Augustine died before the boy was born. Got his throat slit by a madman during his farewell performance. Caused a real ruckus back then…”
“God, that’s awful! No wonder Helen Bloodworth never speaks a word about her child’s father. Poor thing…”
Anger of an unknown cause swelled in his heart, threatening to burst his chest open. He wanted to scream at them to shut the bloody up, all their seemingly harmless gossips that felt like buzzing bees with tiny pricks in his ears. They hurt his head, made tears hot on his cloudy eyes. They tormented him, reminded him of the hideous truth about the boy’s parentage. An abomination. An unforgivable sin. He wanted to lash out at them with his sharp-witted sarcasm and cruel words like Lord William Bloodworth-minus-”the old” used to. Shamed them until their heavily powdered faces turned scarlet, their lips sewn and they scattered away like scared ducks. How good it would feel. But he did neither scream nor lash out, because if somehow the years had not sapped his courage, his ceaseless coughs surely had. So he stood with his back against the stone wall, his cane in hand, chest heaving heavily as he tried to swallow his rage in silence like every other old man of his age. How time flew…
It took much persuasion from the relatives and friends for Helen to change her mind and agreed to stay with her father – the poor, lonely old man who missed his daughter sickly – until she returned to America. That was her home now, she added while her eyes were focus on him as though the words were meant for him alone. Just when his daughter had learn of cruelty? Had the New World taught her so?
The boy’s black eyes sparked with joyous warm upon the idea, a stark contrast to his mother’s cold ones.
It was when the three of them were seated on the dining table, him on one side while Helen and the boy on the other, that Lord William Bloodworth had the chance and courage to study the face of his grandson. On first look one would not doubt the boy was Helen’s: the resemblance was seeable in their raven hair, delicate features and milky skin. In her green adolescence Helen used to pride herself on her look. “Gives me an air of mystique,” she said, like the moon while around her there was abundance of sun in golden hair and rosy cheeks. She was one of a few who possessed pale complexion but never gave a sickly impression, and this trait was inherited in her child.
When he dared look closer, there were certain nuances that distinguished the boy from Helen. His eyes, for instance, were so dark that they reflected light while Helen’s were a pale blue. The mole under his right eye like a small tear. The particular curve of his lips when he smiled. All were pieces of a picture that once William finished putting together would present a familiar portrait. The face of the devil which haunted him day and night. Once he had come to such realization, he could not help seeing the boy at none other than the fiend that had spawned him. Like father, like son. Before he even noticed, the boy would reach adulthood and become the second Adrian Augustine. Such toxic thoughts poisoned him, worn him out, and he felt acutely the effect of time in every marrow of his old bones.
“Let’s retire for the evening,” he told Helen. “I had the servants prepared the rooms for you. Your original room at the east wing and–”
“Adrian will sleep in my room.”
“He’s old enough to sleep in his own room, Helen. You can’t coddle him like a baby forever.”
Helen caressed the top of her son’s head. “Can I?”
He tried to quench the uneasy feeling in his throat by the ever-growing affection in the way she looked at the boy. Something was not right. “He’s growing up, Helen, and sooner or later you have to let him out of your wing. Allow him to decide on his own for a chance.”
“Do you not want to sleep with me tonight, Adrian darling?” She asked teasingly.
“I want to sleep with Helen,” said the boy.
And the queasiness in William’s stomach grew tenfold at the particular manner in which the boy articulated Helen’s name. Adrian Augustine used to pronounce her name precisely the same, with the first vowel slightly longer and more stressed than usual. How that demon had loved to taunt him using his daughter’s name.
“Why is he not talking to me? Is he angry with me?” the boy asked.
“No, he is not. He is just bone-tired by all the things today. No one is angry with you, darling.”
“Should we call a doctor then?”
“That’s not necessary,” William said, waving his hands. “I only need a rest. Goodnight to the both of you.”
He swore he could feel the boy’s eyes on him even as Helen led him out of the dining room.
Lord William Bloodworth feared that he was going insane. Everything about Helen’s son reminded him of Adrian Augustine, his cockney accent even though he was living in America, his mannerisms, his countenance, as though he was not only the child of Adrian Augustine, he was Adrian Augustine. Atheistic as he was, William had never believed in God and Devil, in soul and reincarnation. Yet Adrian had proven otherwise. He had proven to him that the devil existed amongst humans – the myriad sins of his debauched lifestyle manifested in a bloody, devastating tornado that swept in those he had had eyes on – men and women – ravaged them until there was nothing left of those poor unfortunate souls but an empty, tarnished self. He might have proven to William that the devil was not so easily vanquished and that he might have already returned.
For what purpose? To relive his sinful life? To take revenge on William, torment him? To destroy him? Or to execute a grander, more sinister scheme?
Every night since Helen’s return he lay awake on his bed, thinking about Adrian Augustine, past, present and future. Fear grew in his senile heart, gnawing him like the great vulture that ever fed on the undying Prometheus’s liver. Fear bred paranoia and every time his eyes laid on the boy, the ‘Adrian Augustine’ of this life, he could not help visualizing those small hands wrapping around his throats, or holding a gleaming knife. He could not help imagining his throat slit by that same knife, his blood flowing like a fountain while the little angelic face retained its pure, innocent smile.
Thus, the deeper Lord William delved into his paranoia and many a scenario of Adrian Augustine’s taking his vengeance, the more slippery his promise to Helen became. How could he find in his heart a sliver of love for one who could have been the cause of his doom? Who had already robbed him of Helen’s love, and replaced it with cool animosity?
Lord William’s torments did not last long however, because roughly a month later, Helen took her son back to America, leaving him a lonely old man, who perhaps was finally at peace. Their leave would happen after a few sporadic events that had happened in their stay, which served to further cement William’s belief that there was something awfully wrong with the boy ‘Adrian Augustine’.
I. Cigarette from Cairo
It was one of the lazy afternoons when William loved to spend on his favorite armchair in his library, perhaps reading a book, contemplating the time gone by or simply dozing. Helen had departed early in the morning to pay a visit to her friend, leaving her son at home. When William stepped in, he found the boy sitting in a far corner, absorbed in some book he had taken from one of the many shelves. He seemed to be quite bookish, such was William’s observation and though being in the same room with Adrian Augustine’s child was not the most pleasant, William also did his best to not appear that he was avoiding the boy. He found small comfort in the fact that the child was a silent company; he did not think he could handle a naughty one running around the manor screaming and causing all sorts of mayhem. Perhaps years ago he might fancy a livelier child, but the William of present was, in his own description, a pitiful bag of old bones that loved nothing more than peace and quietness. Not the best of grandfather, he knew, and could not help it.
If there was one thing old age had not robbed from him, it was his long-term affair with the nicotine. Even when he was young, he did not have the best of lungs; when time weighted on him, so it did his lungs. William could not recall how many times his doctor had advised him to give up smoking, and how many times he had deliberately ignored such thoughtful advice when reaching into his pocket for his silver cigarette case. He remembered giving Adrian Augustine one such case, with his name beautifully engraved on it. They had found that case inside his jacket the night he was murdered. He had kept it all this time even when their relationship had taken a stale turn. An ironic memento.
Nicotine was poison, and the first inhale never failed to result in a string of painful coughs. His face dyed scarlet as tears cornered around his eyes.
“Are you alright, William? Shall I ring Frances?”
The boy’s face was blurry through a veil of tear, constructing an illusion of a young man’s. Of Adrian Augustine’s. His heart skipped a beat.
The boy had abandoned his book and crawled next to his legs.
“It’s ‘grandfather’,” he weakly chided the boy. His wrinkled hand went to his chest, trying to sooth the pain as well as his frantic heart. “Also, call your mother ‘mother’, not her name.”
The boy stared at him with huge, black eyes as though trying to process what he had been told, and failed. “Why can I not call her by her name, and you by yours?”
“Because it’s not appropriate!” William said, exasperated. What were they educating children in America?
“They are imported from Cairo, are they not?”
“These,” the boy said, pointing at the cigarettes in the case.
William’s bushy eyebrows furrowed. “How could you know?” he stammered, baffled. Never did he imagine a six-year-old could tell the origin of a cigarette brand by look and smell alone. He serious doubted his daughter would ever teach her son such matter.
“But it is true, right? That they are from Cairo?”
His beaming face seemed to gather all the sunlight of the late summer afternoon outside the library. Its shine hurt William’s eyes.
Lord William Bloodworth nodded, mechanically. His withering memory remembered hearing the same question years ago, spoken in a sonorous voice. The voice of Adrian Augustine.
Adrian Augustine’s admirers only knew his violin was heavenly; not many knew his singing was not any less.
“What’s from Cairo? Care to tell me?” A female voice was heard by the entrance. Helen had returned, and she was leaning against the window, basking in the sun. William found himself not blinking. So beautiful was she that wherever she stood, everything else, including the bouquet of red roses in her arms, seemed dull, monotonic while she became the most vivid color in the picture, the same as her son’s smile would gather all the afternoon’s sun to himself. Perhaps it was her make-up, perhaps it was her voguish black dress that closely hugged her form, or the manner in which she carried herself that no one could imagine she were already in her thirties, and mother to a six-year-old. Soon as she was back to London, her suitors had been lining up outside their manor and filling their chambers with exquisite flowers and expensive gifts. Still, at times when he looked at her, Lord William could hardly recognize his daughter, his Helen whom had raised from birth. A stranger, though mesmerizing, remained a stranger still.
This was one such occasion.
“Helen!” the boy cried with excitement. He rushed to her side, squeezing her body with all the strange a six-year-old could muster. Helen’s ice mask thawed instantly as she kneeled down and kissed his pale cheeks until they turned cherry. “Were you a good boy when I was out?”
The boy nodded. “William’s cigarettes come from Cairo.”
“Precisely,” Helen drawled. “Cairo has the best cigarettes in the world.”
“Did you teach him about cigarette brand?”
“No. I no longer smoke, as you see. But my boy–”
She paused midway to caress her son’s head. “–he seems to know a lot of things on his own. He surprises me sometimes.”
“Does it not strike you as… strange?”
“’Strange’ isn’t a nice word for a child, father. Besides, aren’t we all proud to have an intelligent child of our flesh and blood?”
“Flesh and blood” the two words struck William hard. Helen’s flesh and blood. Adrian Augustine’s flesh and blood.
What could a monster have created but another monster under beautiful skin?
“Helen, William has a beautiful silver case. Can I have one, too? With my name engraved on it?”
Helen’s laughter was like silver bell. “So that you can smoke at the age of six?”
The boy’s cherry lips pursed in an indignant line. “But it is beautiful,” he insisted, “please, Helen.”
“If you are a good boy and ask your grandfather nicely, maybe, just maybe you can have one.” Turning to William, she asked, “Can he, father?”
“Please, Wil… no, grandfather,” the boy pled. “I will be a good boy. Very, very good.”
His huge, expressive black eyes of Adrian Augustine would be the dead of William. Could he ever say ‘no’ to them?
Before long, the nobleman found himself handing his grandson a silver case with the name ‘Adrian Augustine’ carved on it. The boy beamed happily at him when he received the gift and William could not deny he had seen the former Adrian Augustine smiling at him.
How, in the depth of his cold, lonely nights, had he had wished to see that particular smile again, even just once.
II. For My Beloved Helen
Lord William Bloodworth was walking through a long corridor. His feet were bare, and his sleeping robe clung slickly to his skin as a result of a nightmare. Of jumbled images of a gleaming knife, a slit throat and the maniac laughter of a madman. The music had broken the dream’s spell, and once he was done catching his breath and steadying his heartbeat, he left his bed to find its source.
The music came from the room at the end of the long corridor. It was the Music Chamber, the name having come to being by a seven-year-old Helen, where the nobleman stored the grand piano and other musical instruments he had gathered over the years. Helen used to play the piano there every Sunday morning and sometimes in the afternoon, before she turned sixteen and decided to spread her wings. This was the thirteenth year since she had left this manor and during that time although Lord William Bloodworth had always instructed the maids to keep the chamber free of dust, he himself had not stepped inside it. He barely remembered how it looked now.
The wall of the corridor was ornamented with various paintings. William was an ardent collector in his younger days – from musical instruments to sculptures and paintings… If he had even the slightest interest in them, he would get them at all cost. This vast manor was the house to his treasured collections and this was where he showcased his paintings, the majority of which were portraits of countless people. Some of them were well-known historical figures while others were mere obscure faces of the stern Londoners from all walks of life. As he took slow, barefooted steps down the length of the corridor, he had a distinct feeling that all the visages painted from colored pigments became real. Not just their faces though, soon their bodies gathered flesh and they crawled out of their framed canvases to crowd the empty corridor. Gentlemen and ladies in elaborate wigs and fancy frills engaged in conversations – the gentlemen debating politics in boisterous loud voices while the ladies whispering gossips to one another behind their fans, their raucous laughter filling the space as their cigarette and brandy filling Lord William Bloodworth’s nose. The deserted corridor in a lord’s manor became the waiting parlor in a common theater house, he thought. Such a place reminded him of one particular man. Talented as he had been, Adrian Augustine had never fancied the large orchestral houses. It was in common theater houses such as this, where the aristocrats mingled indiscriminately with the folks, that he thrived, playing his demonic music and enchanting many a tender heart in a single night and trampling then when the twilight came. How William had watched the cycle repeat.
The moment William put his hand on the handle and twisted the knob, all chattering and laughter was vanquished by the song behind the door. He briefly closed his eyes and opened them again, expecting to witness a lean figure clad in pristine white. His raven hair fell to his shoulders in tendrils like ink on white cloth, his obsidian eyes half-closed, thick lashes like dark butterfly wings casting two faint shadows on pale cheeks, and he was swaying gently to the divine music from his violin. A devil at heart, but an angel in his looks and his art, that was the paradox of Adrian Augustine. Tonight he was playing a new piece that he had claimed to write in his smoldering passion for his ‘beloved’; he had pronounced neither the name of the music nor his lover’s, making a promise to divulge them both at the end of his performance. He had never managed to fulfill his promise, because when the music was reaching a crescendo, a madman leapt from the front row and slashed his throat with a well-whetted knife.
Lord William Bloodworth had been there to witness the death of Adrian Augustine, seated on a few seats from the madman’s. He had even had Augustine’s blood on his suit.
Now in the Music Chamber, he was listening to that unfinished, nameless piece again.
He did not see the devil in pure white when he opened his eyes; he only saw his beloved Helen in a simple teal gown and the boy sitting on the grand piano, basking in the final breaths of the sun before it died in the west. It was the boy that was sliding his little fingers skillfully on the ivory keys and Helen’s eyes on her son were filled with warm pride.
This time William got to hear the ending.
“Have you ever listened to this one, father?” Helen suddenly asked. She straightened her back and let her nimble fingers run through her son’s soft hair.
To her question Lord William Bloodworth nodded. “Is it alright to teach a child such sensual music?”
Helen let out a soft laugh. “Oh father, music is beauty and there are no beauties that shouldn’t be taught to a child.”
“Is that how things are in America?” His voice was hoarse with emotions evoked by the music, though William himself did not realize.
“That is how things are in my home, father,” Helen replied coolly. “They said this was the music he was playing when that madman murdered him. Do you happen to know its name?”
“For My Beloved Helen, that was the name. He wrote this piece for me. Yet I only found it when scavenging his notes, scattered around the flat he called his home. Oh the irony, father, can you imagine its bitter taste?”
He turned his head away to avoid her piercing gaze, brimmed with tears. He could never bring himself to tell her that he had been there, and could have had the chance to hear Adrian Augustine’s piece to the end had it not for the madman’s intervention. It would only fuel her wrath for him.
“I’m fine, darling,” Helen’s tear-choked voice said to her son as his small hand came up to wipe away her tears. “Thank you.” She caught his hand, kissing his palm.
“I don’t like this piano. A violin would sound much better.”
“When we come back to New Orleans, you will play the violin for me, promise?”
The boy nodded frantically, causing his mother to burst into laughter.
Helen kissed the top of his head. “Now, one more time before dinner, shall we? Do you care to join us father? Or would you rather retire to your room and get changed for dinner? Viktor is coming tonight. He invited me to the theater on Tuesday night so I thought it was only courteous to invite him to dinner.”
“I think I should go change,” William said, looking briefly at his open robe and bare feet. As he made his way out of the room, he heard Helen. “I remember we had a violin in this Music Chamber – the precious Stradivarius I always begged you to try but you never allowed me to touch. Where is it now?”
“Burnt,” he replied curtly, “in an accident,” and closed the door.
The various figures had returned to their respective places on the canvases, though he could still feel their eyes on him as he slowly made his way to his room.
III. Ghost of the Photograph
Lord William Bloodworth was having a very peculiar dream.
In this dream he was not an old man, having to be extra-careful with his every step so as not to cause unnecessary damage to his old bones; in this dream he was in a much younger body, with strong and swift legs to skip up and down the stairs like a happy little squirrel.
He strode through corridor, eyes sweeping over the portraits. He could feel the muscles around his lips shifted every time he passed a particularly interesting one. That gentleman has such funny whiskers, I wonder if he was called ‘Lord Whisker’. He heard the boy’s thought. Ha, this lady has such a tall wig that takes up two-third of the canvas. Poor her old neck. This body that hosted him was a boy’s, with all a boy’s curiosity and carefree attitude.
The boy had reached the landing where the stairs could lead to the chambers upstairs or the basement deep in the earth. Upstairs it was bright and sunny – it was in the early afternoon when the sun was very strong – while downstairs was dark and ominous. The boy was weighing his fear of the dark and his childish yearning to explore this part of the manor. Go up! William heard himself whisper. The boy had one foot on the tread. Be a good boy and go up! There is nothing down there for you, he told the boy again, putting a little more force behind his command. He could feel the clockwork turning inside the boy’s head. Hesitantly, he put his foot down. Good boy. Now go back to your room or the library, anywhere but here. A sudden spark, and then all his fear and hesitance vaporized, replaced with a fierce determination. The boy rushed up the flight of stairs, got himself a candle and then down again; William’s commands were pitiably lost among the noises of soles on the wooden steps and petulant enthusiasm. A child’s love for discovery was strong, and all an old man could do to subdue it were absolutely nothing.
Through the boy’s eyes he saw the wallpaper on the wall, the patterns of which had faded to non-recognizable and there were holes that revealed the brick wall underneath, courtesy of years of negligence and rodents. The stench of dust and mold grew stronger as the daylight grew weaker with the boy’s each careful step down, until the candle was the primary source of light. No more of the careless running, he had learnt to be caution when venturing into the dark.
At the end of the stairs was a door. William remembered it used to be red, but time had stripped away most of the pretty coat, leaving the rough brown skin. The boy tried opening the door, and found it locked. A surge of disappointment was transferred from him to William. Go back upstairs, before your mother starts searching for you. Once again he whispered, and once again he was unheard. The boy stared at the moldy walls, his small hands running over the wallpaper as if hoping to find something hidden in the myriad of tears. He looked to his feet, where he was standing on a doormat so ancient its original color was indefinable.No. William felt his heart throbbing – how strange it was, to able to feel in his dream, how alarming. Dust rose as the boy turned it over, causing him a string of sneezes. He touched the floor beneath, knocking his fingers on the wooden planks. Again, nothing. Not giving up, he began examining the doormat, pulling at every stray thread. God no. William’s chest hurt. A fire burning in there, cooking him from the inside. The boy let out a startled cry when he found a tear at the seam, in which a small, cool object answered to his searching hand. No. He held it up to his eyes: it was a bronze, unadorned, simple key that would never made it to the set of elaborately carved keys for the luxurious chambers upstairs. Yet it was just what he needed for the “Open Sesame” spell. He beamed with triumph as the lock gave a dry click and the door was opened. God help us. The boy gingerly stepped inside.
The room housed a motley group of objects, big and small, modern and ancient, under a coat of dust. Nonetheless, they did not disappoint the boy; rather, he was intrigued by them as though he had just unearthed a buried treasure ground. His big eyes scanned the room, his heart beating in sync with his excitement when he founded something that appealed to him. So many things that he did not know where to start. Then a small chest, much older than the boy and worn at the edge, caught his best interest. He retrieved it from the low shelf, placed it near the candle on the ground and flicked open the lid. William’s pain morphed into agony; were he in his own body and able to control it, he would scream for the boy not to bring what was inside the chest out to light. He were not, so with horror he had to watch the boy empty the chest’s contents to the ground. A soft thud, and a stack of yellow paper tied together by a red cord rolled over to his feet. Small hands untied the knot and picked up the first paper. His eyes, also William’s eyes, skimmed over the words of the unaddressed letter; the script was not the neatest, but the handwriting was strong and bold enough to give hints to the writer’s personality. Perhaps bored with all the characters, the boy abandoned the first letter to reach for the second, which he soon did the same for the third, the forth, until he found a black and white photograph of a young man amongst the papers. With hair as black as ink, pallid skin and exquisite bones for his face, he possessed a dark beauty that was both unnerving and alluring – a fallen angel made to ruin, now dozing on the armchair like a harmless babe. One look and you would not be able to avert your eyes, your very soul captured by the elegant line of his jaw, the tiny crease between his eyebrows, probably caused by a troubled dream. William felt the boy’s lips stretching into a smile, not the innocuous one he often showed William and his mother but one that was not unlike a smirk, which was mirrored by the pair of lips in the photograph. The eyes shot open, black like midnight, like their owner’s soul, and their stare penetrated the boy to reach the old man. The surface of the photograph simmered and melted like being held under a fire, and the beautiful young man, rather than burning, emerged from the frame that kept him imprisoned, and grabbed the boy, his eyes never leaving William.
Lord William Bloodworth was awaken by his own screams.
With the last image of his dream imprinted in his mind, the old man swung open the door of his chamber. Down the stairs he ran, not giving half a mind to his brittle bones, until he reached the red door at the end. He did not need the key for it was already open. Inside he found the boy holding a black and white photograph in his hands, his large, obsidian eyes opening wide in surprise. The candlelight was on the ground, around which the yellow letters were strewn.
“OUT!” William shouted. His shadow was looming over the little boy, threatening. His face pallid, sweated, his eyes red with tiny veins and the hand that was holding onto the wall was shaking violently. “OUT!” he repeated, louder, with menacing when the boy had not moved from his spot. The old man stalked closer and it was without a shadow of a doubt that he would strike the child if he refused to obey.
Fear finally registered to the young mind and tears started swelling in his eyes.
“Father,” called a voice from inside the room, from where the boy ran to. It was an ice-cold bucket dumping on Lord William Bloodworth, deflating his rage in millisecond and searing a way for terror to settle in. His body sagged instantly as though a torn bag of rice, and the rice had flooded out.
It was not the same as his dream: in his dream, the boy had been all by himself. In reality, Helen was with him.
She stood up from an old chair and let the boy hid his tear-stained face behind her back, shielding him from William. “Father, do you intend to kill my son, too?” she sounded calm, but instead of the mildly cool voice she usually spoke to him, this time it was frigid.
“No, I d–didn’t–I don’t…”
“Like you killed his father seven years ago?”
“What? I didn’t–”
“No more lies, father,” she said. “I have had enough with your lies.”
“Who told you such cruel lie? I didn’t kill him! Adrian Augustine was murdered by madman, everyone there saw that!”
William could hear his teeth clattering as he defended himself from Helen’s accusations; the effect of her chilling stare on him was devastating. His hand gripped the wall until his knuckles turned white, trying to keep himself from collapsing.
“Peter Browning was never a madman. He was only mad on the account of his wife’s consumption and a wealthy man, probably a lord, offered him money to cure her. In exchange for that hefty sum of money, he dressed up, booked a seat in Adrian Augustine’s final performance, and killed the leading star. Little did he know that after the murder, his ‘reimbursement’ for his service were a quick hanging and curses that lasted until today. Did I miss anything, father?”
“I didn’t know any man by the name Peter Browning,” he denied. “Nor did I pay him to kill Adrian Augustine.”
“Oh, don’t disgrace the hard-labor fruits of my six years, father.”
“What are you saying, Helen?”
The boy’s cry had quieted. Helen stroked his soft hair tenderly before sending him upstairs. “Go to our room and play with the new toys I bought you, darling. Mummy will soon join you. If you are hungry, ask Frances to prepare you some snacks.”
“Can I have a lemon cake, Helen? And a blueberry muffin, too?”
“Anything you like, sweetheart. Now, go!”
The boy nodded and proceeded to leave his mother’s side. He glanced nervously at William, afraid that the old man might strike him, as he passed through the door.
“After Adrian’s birth, I didn’t leave London like you, or anyone thought,” she continued. “I traveled to New Orleans often for business but my base was right here, just a few streets from you, father. Can’t you imagine the price I paid for the truth? A much higher than the one you paid for your lies.”
Tears brimmed hotly around his eyes. The Helen in front of him was blurred and flickering like an apparition.
“When did you know?”
Helen went on. “I knew you had him killed the day his death reached me, have always known in my heart. But a part of me, tiny as it was, stubbornly denied the blatant truth. It screamed for evidence, for a blinded faith that you, my father, was guiltless, then the truth crushed it, and burned it to ash.”
“He was devil-incarnate, Helen. An abomination! The filthy breathing proof of his mother’s adultery in her husband’s absence!” he cried. “And you, you were so pure, so innocent. He seduced you, corrupted you for the sake of his vengeance. Didn’t he tell me? He would break your heart, rip it out and trample it under his soles. I had seen him doing so to countless before you, all broken, ruined beyond fix. All ended up in a pool of shame, never to get out. I feared you would be next. I tried to warn you, but you never listened, enchanted by the devil’s silver tongue. I knew you would die once he discarded you. I had to prevent that nightmare. You, my beautiful, darling only daughter!”
Her piercing eyes softened with moisture and for a moment, it seemed his words had managed to touch her cold heart. It was only a moment though: her eyes regained their sharpness and she broke into a peal of laughter. “Did you think I hadn’t an idea of who he was? Did you really kill him to protect me, your helpless ignorant daughter? Oh, you truly make me laugh!”
Lord William Bloodworth stared at her, puzzled.
Helen leisurely walked to a corner, where she took an old violin case in her hands. Blowing softly the layer of dust, she opened the lid and held out a violin. Light from the candle danced on it finely lacquered skin. She sawed a few notes, testing the sound. “Burnt, father? The precious Stradivarius I used to suspect you loved more than your child?”
“The Stradivarius, those unsent letters, his photograph… You really built a shrine for him here, didn’t you? But you could have chosen some place… less dark and cramped. You know he always preferred light…”
Lord William Bloodworth was about to open his lips.
“Please, don’t sully the truth, father,” she denied his unvoiced defense. “I have always known. You were attending his debut concert the night mother died, abandoning her on her deathbed as a punishment for her slip of the heart. My poor mother, tormented till her last moments. Yet for all the hatred you had for her, you couldn’t hate him. You gave the Stradivarius to him. You bought his small flat by the south bank. You were his generous patron, who thought you had bought not only his art but his person as well.”
She picked up the scattered letters and the photograph.
“How did I know when you kept those secrets so well? He told me himself, everything there was to know, confessed to me the night we planned our leave.”
“Liar…” he muttered, weakly, “all lies.”
“We were going to leave for America, you see, New Orleans, the French city we both loved. We would settle in the French Quarter, open a small pub, and every evening he would play for our patrons. That beautiful dream of ours. Somehow you learned of it, and you couldn’t stand it. You would have it destroyed at all cost. Was that a lie, too, father?”
“If you have always known, if you despise me so, why did you come back?”
There she laughed again, each sound a silvery stab to his chest.”Has it not occurred to you that I have been planning for revenge?”
He could not tell if it was his legs trembling or the ground was quaking.
“Why didn’t you denounce me to the police? You’ve had all the evidence.”
She stalked closer to him and looked at him in the eyes she spoke, word by word. “I would never betray you, father, despise you as I do for having robbed my first, and only love. Adrian never broke my heart; you did. You tore it out, you smashed it to a bloody pulp. I wanted to torment you but once I stepped inside this manor, I realized that I didn’t have to; you had been doing it yourself very well already, with all your guilt and paranoia. How you were freaked out by the slightest thing my son did! Isn’t he a spitting image of his father? Do you feel haunted looking at his face?”
She cradled his head in her arms, whispering to him, “What date is it today, can you tell me?”
“The day he died…”
“Right, it was today that he was murdered. That I died. Do you have any idea how I have been waiting for this chance to tell you my hatred, my wrath, my pains…”
She kissed him, her lips like snow on his forehead.
“… Then I will leave. I will take Adrian and disappear from your sight forever. Until the day you die, father, remember that I will never forgive you, that I will not shed tears in your funeral.”
The yellow-papered letters and photographs left her hands, fluttered in the mid-air like doves, and landed by her feet.
“Keep them, father, however long you wish in this damned shrine you built, for I have the real Adrian by my side. Trade my soul for it I did.”
Helen did not spare a look at him when she spun on her heels and left.
Left alone in the basement, Lord William Bloodworth’s knees finally gave in.
True to her words, when William finally peeled himself off the floor and ascended the stairs, Frances told him that the lady and her son had long gone.
Adrian Augustine’s was the last face Lord William Bloodworth wanted to see in this word. It was also the last face he saw at the final moments of his guilt-stricken existence.
Adrian Augustine stepped in the chamber a beautiful young man. He was precisely the same as the image imprinted on William’s memory: hair and eyes as dark as the starless night sky, a face so otherworldly it inspired only awe and profound affection. He dresses all in white, as such was his beloved color, with a single black pearl adorned his cravat of the finest silk. He took off his hat and bowed deeply to William’s doctor, all polite and fastidious manners, but his eyes were on the dying old man on the bed the moment he entered. A shadow of a smile lingered at the corner of his lips.
“Look, my lord,” the doctor cried. “Your only grandson has come back!”
Oh, how the irony cut deep. If only he were not bone-tied to his deathbed, if only he had a sliver of strength, he would tip his head back and laugh so loud the sound of his laughter would shake the manor. Had he not already known this was how it would turn out?
“Could I be allowed a moment alone with my grandfather, please, doctor?”
“But of course,” said the doctor, taking Adrian’s hands in his and giving an enthusiastic squeeze. “Thanks God you have made it in time. I was so worried that you could have been hindered by transportation, or the telegraph failed to reach you. Your mother–”
The young man placed a finger on his lips.
“I see… Please stay with him, comfort him. He has been suffering great pain recently.”
“That I must do. Thank you, doctor.”
Once the doctor was gone, Adrian took a seat beside Lord William Bloodworth’s bed. He lifted William’s hand, lay beside his body, and placed a kiss on the wrinkled skin.
“I can imagine that I am not the face you wish to see at the moment.”
“She, no, we came back together. But she does not want to come in. She made a vow, you see, that she would never again appear in front of you. That day I did not go upstairs as Helen asked. I stayed on the stairs, and I heard all.”
Adrian looked genuinely stricken by Lord William’s curse. “Am I the devil, you said?” he asked. “How so? It was not I who murdered a man and robbed away his daughter’s love? Do tell me, is that truly the devil’s work?”
Though he spoke of accusations, his voice was soft, his tone calm, relaxed even. It would not be a surprise if he talked about London’s weather in this voice, or whispered honey into a lover’s ears.
How like Adrian Augustine, William thought. Always smiling even when the world around him shook and crumbled. Always smiling even when all around him screamed and suffered. Only a slit throat could have snubbed out that smile.
“…abomination,” hissed William weakly. Anger cost him a feat of agonizing coughs. He wondered if the flame of Hell could burn stronger than the one in his chest?
Adrian’s eyes were so mellow and gentle they could fool a dying man with spurious affection. Could have almost fooled William.
“Helen may not forgive you but I do. I forgive your cruel words and crueler acts…”
He lowered his head and kissed the spot between the old man’s eyes. “…grandfather,” he whispered at last. “That is why I will not let you pass on with a menacing lie. Helen did not come back to London. She could not, for she was buried beneath the soil of Lafayette Cemetery in the French Quarter. Has been there for two years. Tuberculosis, the same killer that had taken her mother.”
It seemed all the remaining air had been burnt out in Lord William Bloodworth’s ailing lungs. He could not breathe, his face turned ashen, and his bloodshot eyes, sunken deep in his sockets, were nailed on Adrian’s face. Both of his hands gripped the young man’s arm.
“It was her wish that I would tell you a lie and that I would hide the truth about her death from you. In the end I betrayed her will. You are, after all, my grandfather…”
William’s grip grew stronger, and stronger as though he wanted to break his grandson’s arm while Adrian’s words flowed, his serene expression perfectly concealing the pain. His hands slackened and finally dropped on the mattress when the young man was silent.
Adrian’s eyes spoke of profound sadness and loss as he closed Lord William’s Bloodworth’s eyes.
Music was playing when Adrian entered the Music Chamber. Sitting at the piano with her back to the door was a raven-haired woman, her long, black dress flowing down to the white-tiled floor like ink.
Adrian leaned against the door frame, keeping silent until her music ended.
“It’s been so many years since I touched the keys,” the woman said, turning around to face Adrian. “Do you think it sounds awful?”
The green youth of a girl had gone from her, yet what she might have lost was well compensated for by the breathtaking charms of a mature woman at the prime of her life. Her beauty fiercely absorbed the luster of everything around her, making them dull in her presence.
“It cannot be more awful than I was at four.”
He stepped forward and placed a butterfly kiss on her lips.
“He’s gone, isn’t he?”
“It was not a peaceful death,” he confessed. “What pained him more, I can’t tell, that his daughter had died before him or that she had refused to see him out of hatred.”
“Either was better than the truth,” she said, touching her sempiternally youthful face. “Can you imagine what he would have said if he had seen me as I am now?”
“Breathtaking,” he replied.
Her laughter was silvery bells. “That wouldn’t have done well to his condition, right?”
He lowered his head in attempt to hide a sheepish smile.
“What shall we do about this manor, Adrian? Oh, excuse me, Mr. Bloodworth?”
“You have not spoken of that last name since I was three years old,” he teased.
“You are the master of this manor now. The title and land will soon be yours also. I had better get used to hearing your last name.”
“Our last name, you mean?” He cocked a fine eyebrow.
“Yes, ours. How will you introduce me to the folks since we share the same last name? Your sister?” She laughed, shaking her head. “Everyone here knows you are an only child. Your cousin? You have no cousin that they do not know. How about our wife? ‘Mrs. Bloodworth’ does have a nice ring to it.”
“Too young to get married.”
“Too old to get married.” She laughed.
He rested his hand on her small waist and spun her into a waltz. Sun beams landed on their lustrous raven hair, their youthful countenance. Stark black contrasted with pure white, her black and his white, so that they seemed an uncanny pair of demon and angel. The beautiful angel and gorgeous demon, dancing with the world’s sorrows beneath their soles.
“Anything you wish,” he whispered into her ears, “my darling Helen.”
Note: Anyone caught the incest subtext? *cough*
OK. here’s a cover (or whatever you’d like to call it) I made for the story. Amateurish at best, I know.
I did a terrible, unforgettable thing. A thing you could never imagine someone like me would be capable of.
I was a senior student of a prestigious technology university. All my life I’d been my parents’ good boy, my teachers’ favorite, and my friends’ hero, the last one mostly during examinations. The point is they loved me and they expected things from me, tons of things I might add; fortunately I had managed to not disappoint them so far, which is why the crime I am about to confess can be rather shocking.
I led an easy life, one might say, and I will not deny it. I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth, cuddled by affluent, loving parents, who gave me the best of both their love and their money. They always did. I wore the best clothes money could buy, played the most expensive toys, went to the most prestigious schools. Sometimes I couldn’t help wondering if they had spoiled me with their sweet, teeth-rotten love; other times I simply enjoyed their smothering affection, taking what they offered me for granted. Life was all but roses and wine for me. Yet I always felt lacking. A tiny, insignificant puzzle piece missing from the big, bright picture of my life. It’d been urging me since I noticed its existence that I had to do something, yet I had no idea what it was. Unknown to my parents and my friends I had been hanging out with people from shady backgrounds. With them I had tried drugs, I had gambled, I had whored. I had whiled the hours tangling in sleek, naked limbs, passionately worshipping the Devil in the only way we knew how, and did best. The thrill they gave me was ephemeral at best, lasting for a heartbeat and then quickly dissolving into the vast, grim landscape of my ennui. The missing piece remained missing and at the end of the night, I laid naked on the bed, reeked of alcohol, sweats, tobacco and perfumes, watching the creeping dawn while feeling the tiny hollowness grow humongous until it devoured me whole.
You must understand that I, though had done many a questionable thing, had never wished to commit such an act. Never thought it! Even in my darkest hours I could never imagine that one day I would do the exact same thing that I often felt disgusted every time reading about it on the newspaper. It came to me entirely by surprise, an impulse that was too strong to resist. I wagered it was due to this impulse that the good, gentle husband plunged the knife into his wife’s chest, that the young, loving mother drowned her newborn baby and the benevolent child strangled his own mother. Before I had the chance to reason it, I had already acted on it. I grabbed that girl by her arm – a frail, delicate creature made to suffer as the poets so love to write – and down the street I dragged her while she struggled with all the feeble strength her petit body could muster. It was dark and deserted, a ghostly path that led to a ghostly house at the end of the street. I knew that house well – abandoned, uninhabited for years and years, a true haunted thing that it was. And even better did I know what I would do to her, the missing puzzle piece of my life in the form of a thin girl, lost, dirty and vulnerable to all sorts of violation.
I crammed myself into her tightness the moment I pushed her down the dusty floor. She squirmed beneath my weight and incoherent noises came from her throat. She was not screaming, could not to, and I learned that trivia once my tongue ravaged her mouth, finding not its counterpart. I couldn’t fathom why, but at the moment I came to the knowledge, I felt a bestial rage gnawing the inside of my stomach. So strong was the bite of the monster in me that my lust became impotent, instantly withered in her wet cavern, replaced by another desire. My hands clammed around her throat and I lifted her head, only to bang it against the cold, hard floor. “Scream! Scream for me!” I repeated my demand as my hands repeated the motion. Again and again. Stronger and stronger. Scream she did not; however, her large, sunken eyes were wide open as they stared not at my face, but something behind my head. But I didn’t notice her eyes back then, blinded as I was by my insane need, and I only recalled it later. Her noises grew weaker by second, until they all but died inside her throat.
I came in her deceased womb like I had never came before. My life was complete now that I had found my missing piece.
I went on being the ‘good boy’ of my parents and my friends. I looked brighter, full of life, one of my friends remarked and I could not help a beam. Could he say that if he knew what I had committed? But I didn’t smile as to mock his ignorance; I smiled because I was happy. I was living. I was enjoying my life as I had never been able to before the poor girl. At her I found a kind of elation that could keep me a good man for the rest of my life. I would be a gentle lover. I would be a faithful husband, a gentle father for my future family. I would be the man everyone around me expected me to be. I felt grateful for her life that was burnt for my own. Once the hellish fire had extinguished, I left her at the abandoned house – the madness occurred there would never depart it. No-one would discover her at least in a month or two. Maybe even more. I paid extra attention to the news, and my heart jolted every time they broadcast something about a murder. I kept waiting a day her death would appear on the TV screen, and they would have all sorts of speculations about her murderer. They would call him ‘a beast’, ‘a demon’. They would question the beggars, rogues and vagabonds nearby. They would never suspect a future engineer in designer clothes. No-one would never know. No-one.
Now you should understand that my telling you my ugliest secret is not because I was tormented by it, nor did I feel the slightest sliver of regret for what I had done. As I said, this act gave me the joy and a feeling of complete I’d never experienced before in my life. Given a chance to turn back time, I would still do it again. Don’t tell me you’ve never had that kind of impulse once or twice in a life time, I don’t buy bullshit. You haven’t committed it simply because you haven’t found your piece, or your chance, whatever the case.
So I’m telling you this not out of remorse but out of kindness, my friends, whether you believe me or not. What I said above is only half the tale, and the other half is what you should really pay attention to.
It happened just as quick and sudden as the moment I saw the girl. I was in my car, driving home after a hardworking day on campus. It had been a lucky day and I was in a ebullient mood; I turned on the stereo and jovially singing along some trashy music with my hands on the wheel. Then I shuddered with a chill, the light of the world went out and when it was on again, I was nowhere but inside my car. I was convinced that I had had a concussion, a notion I quickly shook off after a few seconds, for my vision was clear and my head painless. Confused, the first thing I did was look at my hands, finding them scratched and unclean, the fingers spidery and the nails ragged, caked with dirt. The asphalt of the pavement hurt my feet – they too were bare and filthy. More importantly, they weren’t my feet, nor were these hands mine, nor this stained dress, this entire body! This was a girl’s body, malnourished, neglected and probably abused, if the yellowish bruises on my arms were any proof. There was a small puddle on the street and with the light from the street lamp, I was able to get a look at my face. Not my face, to my un-surprise and utmost horror. You couldn’t imagine it if you have never looked into the mirror and found another face looking back at you. Words are never enough to describe it. Moreover, what had happened to my body, sitting in a car driving at top speed on highway? Had I already died?
A strong hand grabbed my arm and pulled me to my feet. A man in a neat suit, with gold-rimmed glasses and a Patek Philippe watch around his wrist. I knew it immediately since I possessed the same one – a birthday gift from my parents on my 18th birthday. Even the strap was very similar. Provided he had another face, I would be convinced that he had somehow snatched my own body. But he looked too different from me to be me, the only similarity being the look in his almond-shaped eyes – someone had discovered the missing piece of his life puzzle and was determined to reclaim it!
No! No! No! I tried to scream but no word would come out of this mouth, only noises that the stranger paid no mind to as he dragged me to the shadows at the end of the street. I knew what awaited there. I had been there, only not as the captive. I wanted to fight back, to escape this predetermined fate yet this frail body just wouldn’t allow me. It was weak, famished and sick and the man subdued me with hardly any effort. Twice I tripped and my captor yanked me back up. My arm where he grabbed felt numb, my shoulder dislocated in my failed attempt to wrestle free of his grip and my bare feet scraped against the street, bleeding profusely. Tears streamed down my dirtied face. Then through a teary veil I saw her: under the streetlamp stood a girl in a stained white dress, her long dark hair disheveled and her feet bare. She looked exactly the same ragdoll as the night I had broken her, the same as I was now. The only nuance was that she was grinning at me from ear to ear.
Moss and dust and years of negligence created a peculiar stench that was unique to this abandoned house. It was familiar and terrifying at the same time. The man threw me on the floor, his foot stepping on my thigh to keep me in place while he undid his belt. No! No! I fought him but it seemed this body was designed for surrendering and my struggle only fueled his lust. He cleaved my thighs apart and thrust into me in one swift, precise motion. My muscles clenched around his scalding heat and I felt with clarity each and every of his virile pulse. It was a most excruciating agony, doubled with the irony that it was I who had done the same to the girl weeks before. The memory was still fresh, and for that my horror increased tenfold.
It was as though watching a horror movie and coming to a realization mid way that you had been literally sucked into the story and now your life was counted by the remaining screentime. He penetrated me down and up, and was disappointed by my inability to scream. “Scream! Scream for me!” he yelled, his hands on my throat and he lifted my head. In that fleeting moment before my head hit the cold, hard floor, I saw the girl again. Grinning widely, she stood right behind his back. But this time she wasn’t alone. In her hand was a chain that linked together a line of men behind her. All men, all naked and wounded, with their eyes crudely sewn shut, their mouths gagged and only incoherent noises rose from their throats. Each was crouching on the floor and bound by the chain, his wrists being tied to the man before him while his ankle hooked to the one behind. I squinted my eyes, trying to see beyond them. The line seemed without end, a true human centipede. Blood from their myriad wounds drew a tortuous trail that barely touched her feet as their groans barely reached her ears. She looked into my eyes and rested her free hand on my rapist’s shoulder.
That was my last image.
That’s how my story ends. My friends, I know you all have a missing puzzle piece waiting to be filled. It’s a nagging burden that won’t just go away. Beware of her, of our ruthless mistress, for she always knows of it, however deep a corner you have it concealed. She will tempt you, provoke you so that you will let it surface. Don’t give in. Otherwise there’s always a space for another man.
You lead a life of normalities: waking up, going to work, eating, drinking, returning home, sleeping. Just like that, days turn to months, and months to years, everything stays the same, nothing out of the ordinary. Except for one thing: your dream. Whenever you close your eyes, you have the same dream, unchanged as the rest of your life. In your dream you are chained. Metal. Each eye as big as your wrist. And cold as it bits deeply into your flesh. Just not as cold as the water around you. Bound, abandoned and condemned to look at the ghost of the sky ー distorted like a nightmare inside a nightmare ー through the thick layer of water with unmoving eyes. Yet those are the kind times; you should be grateful for them. True horror begins when the sun is out and the water turns ink, and you have nothing but darkness in your company. The darkness that promises terrible, terrible things with which the dark corner of your mind loves to play. Together they torment you, wreck you and you would rather burn in Hell than suffer like this. Oh, wait, this is your Hell, exquisitely tailored for you, for a sin you cannot remember. You are not entirely sure you deserve this punishment. This changes nothing, however, and thus your suffering goes on.
You dread sleeping. You have sought help in every psychiatrist’s office. To no avail. You have thought about freeing yourself from misery with the tongue of a knife yet always you stop at the last minute. You are no coward; still the very thought of being permanently trapped in that nightmare makes your blood curl.
Thus you cling onto your life.
There is no such thing as ‘ordinary’ in your life, if you could call that a life at all. Huge, heavy metal chain binds your limbs. It serves to keep you down there, under the water. Your eyes wide open, and you are made to gaze at the feeble sun through a distorted water mirror. You remember this is a punishment for a sin you can recall neither what nor why. This is only an icing on the cake however; the horror truly begins when the sun is gone. Feeble as it is, the sun is much more welcoming than the darkness that replaces it. The darkness conspires with the dark blotch in your mind and together, they conjure up an array of unimaginable things. This is your Hell, you have told yourself a countless time. You must have been a most wretched soul, and privileged also, to have a personal Hell customized for you. The thought never fails to light up your face with a smile.
But there is one ordinary thing in your life and that is you can dream, despite your eyes wide open. In your dream you lead a normal life: you wake up, you go to work, you eat, you drink, you return home, you sleep. A mundane life yet much desired ー you would rather have it a thousand times.
You cannot wait till sleep pays you a visit again.
Welcome you all to the Gallery ofCuriosité. Our highlight tonight is the Picture of Disappearance. Created from an unknown period by an unknown artist, this picture since discovered has captivated countless viewers. Captivated in the sense that it draws you to it and keeps you in. Spooky? No? Ha-ha, I see, all brave souls around here. What is so special about it, you ask. You will soon find out. Please fall in line, ticket in hand. The gentleman at the front, please step up. I like your Spider Man jacket, very trendy – I’ve been looking for one for ages! The rest please wait your turn. We can only allow one at a time. I will soon return for the next. In the mean time please help yourselves to the drinks provided by our bar, I’m sure there’s something for everyone’s taste. No cigarette, please. Thank you for your patience.
Now now, please follow me inside. This way, please. Here we are looking at the famous, or dare I say, infamous Picture of Disappearance. On the first glance, what do you see? Don’t be shy, tell me. No judging here, I’m no art critic. A landscape, right? Quite pretty, with lustrous green plain, wild flowers and the blue sky above, the bluest, if you ask for my personal opinion. It is called the Great Plain of Nassos, or so I was told. But it seems empty, void, without humans. Makes you feel lost. Just a landscape, you say, nothing more. I beg you to be patient and look again, mister. There, you see. The picture has changed! It’s no longer empty. There is a little girl in a moss-green dress sitting near a wild daffodil bush. She has beautiful golden hair, like the sun in the sky. She looks lonely sitting all by herself there, you say. Such a sentimental gentleman. The ladies sure love a gentleman with open emotions. Blink, and look again, please. Tada~, our beautiful little girl is no longer alone – she has a friend! A girl in lily-white dress and ebony black hair flowing past her tiny waist. Isn’t she lovely? They are making friends, you see. The raven-haired girl and the blond girl are holding hands. Can you tell they are smiling, too? Such precious friendship. Too bad it does not last long. Nothing too beautiful lasts too long, a wise man once said. A shame. Pity. Blink again. Now please look at them. The season has changed: the sky is grey, the sun absent and the grass withers, yellow. And our beautiful girls… Oh no, the blond girl is dead! She is lying on the ground, her dress a stark contrast with the grass. There are dark blotches on her dress, you have to squint your eyes a little. These are her blood. Look carefully if you don’t believe me. Ah ah, don’t lean in too close, please. Why is she dead, you ask. Who killed her? Look to the left, please. Yes, you are looking at the murderer. She has raven-black hair and is wearing a lily-white dress. In her ivory hand a gleaming thing. A butcher knife. It is still dripping! She stabs and stabs and stabs. Such a cruel girl. Please stay where you are. Don’t lean in. The black-haired girl is becoming bigger? Yes, she is coming closer. To you, mister. No, no, please don’t touch the… Oh dear. I did warn you not to stand too close.
Sorry to keep you waiting. Did you enjoy the drinks at the bar? The next in line, please. Follow me, miss. What a beautiful dress you are wearing. I always like crimson – ageless and never out of fashion. You know, the Queen’s favorite color is crimson, too. I’ll soon be back. Enjoy your drinks.
Please follow me inside. This way, please. Here we are looking at the famous, or dare I say, infamous Picture of Disappearance. What do you see? Tell me. A landscape, right? It is called the Great Plain of Nassos, or so I was told. I also heard in Nassos the sky was the bluest and the grass greenest. Myths are always beautiful. But the scenery seems empty, void because there is no human. Makes you feel lost in the vast space. But that’s just it, nothing more. Where is the ‘curiosité’, you ask. I beg you to be patient and look again, miss. There, you see. The picture has changed! It is no longer empty. You are looking at a little boy standing alone. He has a Spider Man jacket, you see. How adorable. Huh? He appears lost, confused. And he is crying. Maybe he is lonely. But look again! There is a girl in the picture. Her black hair is shining and her white dress is so beautiful. Isn’t she a lovely creature? They are going to be friends and the boy will be lonely no more. Be careful, miss. I must warn you not to lean in too close…
When Seiichi stepped on the threshold leading to his shared apartment, the sky was already a dark cobalt. It had been a difficult day for every one of them at the office – the first days of a month always were, as a matter of fact. Even as he left the building, stacks of paper coded with different colors still piled up on his desk like little bonsai mountains, promising a tomorrow just as long and hard as today. He had fallen asleep on the subway and would have sorely missed his station had it not been for a kind old lady who looked worn out like himself or any other passenger. He longed for a hot bath and a delicious meal that was not one of the varieties of instant ramen they had in boxes at their apartment. That was just wishful thinking really: the day his lazy, undisciplined roommate prepared a proper meal for them would also be the day his parsimonious manager gave him a decent raise, which was unlikely this year or the next. How many a time he had thought of quitting his current stagnant job and decided against it in the next minute; finding a decent job in this economy climate was not so different from the Gold Rush in the previous century: few chances and risks galore. And Tanaka Seiichi had never been in Lady Luck’s favor: a mistake in judgment could end up in weeks if not months of living off unemployment benefits.
“Tadaima,” he said aloud, announcing his presence to no one in particular. The place was dark, illuminated only by the yellow light from the street lamp outside the window. Shidou must be dozing off again, that lazy ass. Muttering a curse under his breath, Seiichi took off his shoes, placed them neatly in their place in the shoe cabinet and put on his fluffy bunny slippers (his roommate’s birthday present – never ask) which muffed the sound of his feet as he passed the short corridor in a few quick strides. The room at the end was pitch-back.
“Holy shit, Shidou,” cried Seiichi once he turned on the lights. He was very alarmed when his slippered feet made sloppy sounds as if he was stepping on a puddle after the rain. It turned out his analogy was not very far from reality – he had indeed stepped on a puddle at the door of the room. If he were in another time, when he was less exhausted and in a better mood for literature and romance, perhaps he might describe it as having the color of old red wine or withered Manjusakas. But no, the truth was he was dead on his feet so he would say it as it was, no unnecessary fluff: it was a puddle of congealed blood that lied on the floor, not far from which were the severed torso and limbs of a male body, whose remains of clothes looked too dauntingly familiar for him not to recognize. The blood was dark, almost brown, which suggested this unsightly deed must have been committed at least an hour or two.
And on the faded sofa laid the slumbering culprit of this ugly crime: the amateur mangaka on his way to become professional who was also his irresponsible and messy roommate for five years and a half: Miura Shidou. Seeing the young man curling up on the sofa like Shironeko on his daily routine caused a surge of anger to rise in the salary man. Seiichi went on tiptoe to avoid the scattered body parts and carefully made his way to the sofa. He gave the younger man a good kick, startling and sending him sprawled on the floor.
“The fuck, Sei-kun?” Shidou groaned, running his spidery fingers through his shoulder-length bleached-white hair.
Crossing his arms, Seiichi tapped his foot on the wooden floor.
“Oh right, that,” said Shidou in voice still heavy with sleep. “My bad, Sei-kun. I didn’t mean to. You needn’t kick me though.” He peeled himself off the floor and moved languidly to the table, where he sat down and poured himself a glass of water.
“Mean to what?” Seiichi’s tone was as cool as the first breath of winter that began to spread through the city. “I got home after a hard day’s work, dog-tired, and was warmly welcomed by a puddle of blood and a dismembered body in our room which is very likely my roommate’s newest masterpiece. I think I deserve having not just one kick.”
“I got a bad day too,” whined Shidou. “The tight-ass editor turned me down and this geezer just couldn’t shut up about how we are late for the rent, how we should keep our home a little tidier – my fault, you keep everything in order and I mess things up. I was having a monstrous headache and I told him to fucking leave me alone but he just kept on ranting. Blah blah blah…”
“He liked talking to you. You knew that already.”
Shidou’s hands flung in the air dramatically, the silver bracelets and bangles on his wrists clanging jovially. Pointing a finger at the torso near the door, he said through clenched teeth, “That’s entirely the point. Normally I can deal with his tasteless shitty flirts but today I was fed up with them. I couldn’t help myself.”
“How many times in this year you ‘couldn’t help yourself’?” Seiichi cocked an eyebrow and calmly asked. His tea-colored eyes behind his glasses stared into the younger man’s face. Shidou tried to avoid his penetrating gaze at first by turning his head sideway but even by doing so, he still felt the pricking sensation at the back of his head. This was not the first time he wondered why Sei-kun had not applied to the police institution: with his stare alone the man could put any suspect, no matter how toughened they were, into submission and spill out all their secrets. What a real shame. Defeated just like any other times, he held his hands above his head. “All right, five. I know I have the ugliest temper but this old pig went way over the top. He really asked for it…”
“Asked to be killed and torn apart?”
Shidou let out a exasperated huff. “Can we just move to another place?”
“Some place with a landlord who doesn’t let his dick do the thinking and harasses his tenant every time he gets a chance,” Shidou scoffed.
“Because this landlord,” Seiichi stressed, pointing at said landlord’s remaining body, “let his dick do the thinking that we were able to have the cheapest rent in the whole city! Let’s talk about moving again when you have a regular-paid job, Shidou-san. Until then do keep your complaints to minimum and your temper in check.”
“All right, all right. But you’ll help me this time, right, just like other times.”
He stalked closer to his friend until they were close enough to feel each other’s breath. “O-ne-gai, Sei-kun,” he purred.
There it went again, the puppy-eyed dork face Shidou was so fond of using on Seiich every time he wanted the older man to yield to his whims. With an annoyed grunt Seiichi pushed Shidou’s face aside. “Like I have another choice. It would be me they question if the police arrived.”
Shidou’s forming pout turned into a feral grin and even the formidable difference in their heights could not prevent him from leaping up and hugging his roommate’s neck. “You’re my best Healer, Sei-kun. But you’ll be even better…”
“Your onlyHealer,” Seiichi cut him short, “and no, I won’t leave his memory of this insane act of yours. Not even a hint of it.”
Shidou made an audible groan. “Oh, c’mon, Sei-kun, he’ll be hitting on me again. At least leave him some hint that he should leave us alone as long as we pay the rent.”
“So that he’ll become paranoid and throw us out on the street?” Seiichi shook his head and spoke in firm voice. “No. Try to deal with your temper like other Killers who have no Healers.”
“But I have you…”
“No buts. Next time I come home and see a corpse in our apartment, you can find yourself another Healer…”
Shidou looked as if he wanted to open his mouth but Seiichi promptly shut him up before words came out. “End of discussion.”
“All right,” he murmured. “Anything you say, boss.”
Seiichi’s eyes scanned the place. “Put the head and whatever missing parts back and wipe your mess. I want the floor clean as new and blood-free. You have half an hour.”
“I’m going for a bath first. I want things done when I come out. Got it?”
Seiichi was about to head for the bathroom when Shidou caught his arm. Scratching his messy white head, he smiled awkwardly. “A small problem, Sei-kun. I think the head and other parts are in the bathroom. In the bathtub to be more precise. So maybe we will get him back first and you can have your bath… later.” He defensively took a few steps back.
Blue veins throbbed beneath the salary man’s temples. “Tell me one good reason why I shouldn’t kick the shit out of you, Shidou-san.”
I don’t have a skin like you do To keep it all in like you do I don’t have a soul like you The only one I have Is the one I stole from you
Stay Awake – London Grammar
The girl was an orphan, born to an insane mother and an unknown father. The mother had been mad since she blossomed into puberty, a budding rose whose bewitching beauty was not unlike a curse, and stayed mad still. Some man, some good villager, or good husband, father, must have begot the child in her belly, but nobody admitted to the deed. Instead, rumors sprouted that it was a devious demon that had impregnated her, using her womb to produce an instrument of calamity. The most malicious of them even sought to destroy her by setting her lone hut on fire while she was asleep. She survived, albeit ruined beyond recognition, and her baby survived with her while those who had harmed her fell one by one to inexplicable causes. And before long, none dared to come near her hut, let alone offer her a hand. It was not a matter, because she had given birth to the child on her own, miraculously so, and had raised her daughter since, her madness seemingly washed away by motherhood. Nevertheless, the mother perished by the time the daughter had reached her sixth year of life. Blood from her every orifice, a slow and steady killer. No demon to save her this time. She was given no funeral, only an unmarked earth mound, and her daughter was received by none. They held their breath and murmured their prayers that the girl would soon follow her demonic mother. But to their dismay, the girl had learnt to keep herself alive and as years passed, she grew healthy and beautiful like wild flowers, like grass. Their fear grew with her, yet none would lay a finger on her for fear that they would suffer the same fate as those who had ruined her mother. They thought and thought and finally, they accused her of witchery and thus at the turning of twelve, she was banished to live in the deep dark woods, where she lived until adulthood. She had not borne hatred for the villagers though; her mother had not taught her such. Besides, the life in the woods was to her liking: there she felt safe, and absolutely free, unbound, unrestricted by any moral prejudice.
It did not take her too long to realize though she bore no grudge against the folks, she held no love for them either, or men in general. They could all burn to ash for all she cared. Perhaps they were right to assume she was the seed of demon.
The animals brought her food in her first month: the wolves shared with her their hunts, the bears brought fruits and honey and the birds lay seeds in her palms while she was sleeping. With their help, she built a hut and grew a garden of vegetables to sustain herself. Half of the garden was devoted to the flowers she so loved.
The girl lived on her own but was not alone; she had never been since the night her first and only friend came to her hut.
There was a demon that had been lurking about her garden for some time, too shy to make their presence known to the lone human in the hut. Their shyness made her laugh; such a strange thing this demon was, and very adorable so.
“Why don’t you come in?” she asked, directing her invitation at the darkness surrounding her hut. “I have pumpkin soup, very delicious and enough for two.”
“You are not… afraid of me?” the demon shyly asked. Their voice was soft, neither feminine or masculine.
“You haven’t made me,” she answered with a light cheerful note in her tone. “Now come in. It’s terribly lonely in here.”
Perhaps, had someone taught her, she would have better sense than to invite a stranger into her home, let alone a sinister demon. But she had no one but herself and common sense was an oddity to her as it had been to her late mother.
“It was so delicious,” the demon exclaimed as they put the clay bowl down. They was cloaking themselves with darkness so she could not make out their features and it frustrated her.
“May I come again tomorrow night?”
“If only you show yourself to me.” Reply was swift on her tongue.
There was hesitation in the demon’s voice. “You would be very afraid.”
“Why would I?” she asked. She had yet to meet anything that could give her a fright.
“You are bound to be scared. That is what demons are to humans.”
She heard the demon gulp before they continued, “I am never to show you my real form. If I did, I could never visit you again. The Great Master has dictated such.”
The girl, too, was silent. She said, after a pensive note, “Fine then, don’t show yourself to me. Come back again tomorrow. We’ll have sweet potato cake and green bean soup.”
The demon nodded – she could tell – and possibly beamed at her.
So they did tomorrow night, and the nights that followed. They never failed to compliment her well-cooked food.
“The Great Master allows me to come out of the darkness and see you,” the demon jovially told her, “provided that you lend me your assistance.”
“How can I help?” Their joy was mirrored in her tone.
The demon sounded hesitant. She could almost imagine their fiddling with their thumbs – if they had fingers – in the shadow. “I’m happy to help,” she assured them.
She seemed at a loss for word. They went on elaborating, “My form is not fitted for a human’s eyes. If I wish to show myself to you, it is imperative that I am under a guise.”
“How long do you plan to take it?”
“Just a day only, no more. If you lend it to me, I am sure to return it tomorrow.”
“Then you shall have it for a day.”
Again, had she been taught to take caution against demons by someone with a better common sense than her late mother, she would not agree to lend a part of her body for a demon so easily. But she had not, and this was her only friend; she saw no problem in giving them her trust.
And the worst was she might lose her hair, what was the harm in that? Hair could always grow back, couldn’t it?
The next morning she woke up to find her hair gone, her scalp bare. Running her palm over her head, she burst into laughter. She half-heartedly wished she possessed a mirror so that she could see for herself how utterly ridiculous she looked.
When she was done laughing and wiping away her mirthful tears, she crudely wrapped a shawl around her head and went to tend her garden. The little creatures living on her garden looked at her with their round, beady eyes as if seeing a stranger when a mischievous wind blew away her shawl. Glancing at them out of the corner of her eyes, she wrapped the shawl tighter once she retrieved it.
“There, I give it back to you. Thank you so much,” the demon said to her when they returned to her hut.
In a moment she could feel her hair again, flowing down her shoulders and back like spring water. As she ran her fingers through, it appeared smoother than before. She smiled. “Thank you.”
“For what? It should be I who say it.”
For keeping your promise and my trust intact. But she did not speak aloud; her tender smile conveyed it all.
“Please accept it as a token of my gratitude.”
From the shadow a flower bud was held out to her. As she studied it, she was entirely baffled. She had not seen anything like it before, a flower which was as black and shiny as coal. Black and shiny like her hair.
She gingerly touched the delicate-looking petals. They felt smooth and cool to her touch and she felt a soft vibration humming beneath her fingertips. Like the rippling of the lake when a breeze passed by. Like the gentle waves thumping against the hull. Like mother’s breath in her ears during cold nights. Like music, composed and performed intimately for her. Its fragrance was a tantalizing invitation, floating in the isthmus of reality and fantasy. She inhaled deeply, and thought she had a glimpse of her soul flashing before her eyes.
“What is this flower?” she asked.
“It is a Demimonde.”
“Such a beautiful name. It suits her.”
“Oh, so it is a ‘she’ to you?” the demon asked with a curious note. “In our world, Demimondes are genderless as we are.”
“I don’t know, but when I look at the flower, I feel as if I am looking at a female. Besides, to categorize by genders is one step to humanization,” she replied. She felt the urge to kiss the silky petals, so she did. The bud seemed to respond to her by opening up just a little, exquisite perfume filling her hut.
A silence that she perceived to be the demon’s contemplation followed.
“Is she from where you came?”
“I took her from the Great Master’s beloved garden. I wish I could show you even just a vision of it. Eden He named it and there seasons change to please its inhabitants. Those like myself are only allowed entrance once in a century though.”
“You said demons are genderless but you refer to your Great Master as ‘He’? Isn’t it a little odd?”
“My darling,” the demon chuckled, “He is no demon. He is actually closer to mortals than any of us could ever hope to be.”
It was her turn to contemplate the newly offered truth. She wondered how He looked like. Did He had vermillion skin, flaming horns and a pointed tail like the faded picture in the priest’s dog-eared scripture or was He magnificent like the winged angels painted in the only church in the village? It was not that she had been allowed to enter the church or glimpse at the priest’s scripture; she had only been terribly curious and sneaky. They all said she was the demon child, did they not, but weren’t demons genderless like her friend said? Could it be… Could it be that He was her father? Was her mother with Him then, in Hell, as the villagers shouted and spat every time they came across her? She betted Hell would be a wonderful place, where the Demimondes were always blooming and the seasons changed – but never less than beautiful – to please. She was very tempted to ask the demon.
“That I cannot give an answer to. Do forgive me,” the demon said in a low, almost regretful tone.
The girl fell silent. She did not blame the demon; nevertheless, to say she was not the least disappointed was a blatant lie.
“Still, I can guarantee that we have neither red skin nor pointed tail. Horns vary though; some of us have beautiful curved horns that earn others’ envy while others just… envy.”
A small smile found its way to her little mouth. “Do you make others envy or do you envy?”
The demon cackled. “I cannot divulge this secret to you lest I become your laughing stock for years to come.”
With that the demon transformed her budding smile into a full beam.
“Do you like her? The Demimonde, I mean.”
She caressed Demimonde’s petals with her nimble fingers. She had already fallen in love with the way the flower responded to her every gesture as if an animal, not unresponsive like the plants in her garden and the woods. “She’s mesmerizing, thank you.” A pause. “She’s hasn’t fully bloomed yet.”
“At the right time she shall bloom,” said the demon.
There was a sad note in her tone. “Then I don’t want her to bloom.”
“ If she blooms, she also wilts and dies. I will be very sad when she does.”
“Rest assured, my darling, a Demimonde never wilts. As long as you do not wish her so. A demon flower it is.”
She imagined the demon grinning and was rather frustrated when she could not see. “Won’t you come out now and see me?”
“Not yet, my darling. My guise is far from complete.” They took a short pause. “May I ask to borrow something from you again?”
She waited patiently.
“May I borrow your eyes? Your beautiful eyes that are as blue as the sky seen through the finest sapphire?”
It was her turn to be hesitant. Had someone been here, some villager with the caution and fear of the devils and consideration for her well-being, they would urge her to decline the demon’s request. They might even chase the demon out from the hut, sprinkling garlic and holy water and holding out crucifix. Hair was one thing: one could live their whole life hairless, but eyes were not something one should give away.
But no one was here with her. The demon was, and they were the one she trusted most in the world, if not the only one.
In a timorous voice she asked, “For a day only?”
“For a day only,” the demon echoed.
“You may take my eyes, but without eyes, I will not be able to make the pumpkin cake you so like, nor the green bean and carrot soup.”
“It shall be I who will.”
She woke up in complete darkness, unable to distinguish night from day. Panic seized her, and it was not until the larks and bluebirds’ chirpings in her ears and the warmth of sunlight on her skin told her the morning had come that she was able to calm down. It was only a day, she assured herself, one day and she would regain her eyes while her friend would have eyes like hers. Mother used to love her eyes so much, telling her they were the most gorgeous thing she had seen, that men would follow her to the end of the earth just for a flutter of her curved eyelashes, that even demons would be tamed by a single glance, falling hopelessly in love. Being too young, she had not understood: still, if it pleased her dearest mother, she herself was happy.
She got up from her straw bed and began her normal day, albeit as a blind girl. Things were tenfold harder for her but it would mean immense joy and relief when her eyes returned. After all, not many could experience the sheer happiness of having lost one’s eyesight and finding it again.
She opened her eyes just in time to a forkful of pumpkin cake holding out to her. The color was a little off, the texture not so smooth, and the aroma was not arousing as her cake. Yet she could see that the demon had put much effort in baking this pumpkin cake. They stayed true to their promise, returning her eyes and making her a treat. She had not put her trust in the wrong place.
Her smile was as sweet as the cake as she opened her mouth and let the demon feed her. “It’s really delicious. I love it.”
She heard the demon’s nervous cackling from the dark. A tiny frown was etched between her thin eyebrows.
“Little girls don’t frown,” they said. “Little girls should always smile and be happy.”
“I’m not a little girl,” she protested.
“Little girls do not want to be little girls. Little girls want to be grown-up girls. Grown-up girls would kill to be little girls once more.”
She was uncertain if she should understand the demon’s singing words. Were they supposed to be a riddle? Some demons sure loved riddles, her friend had once told her.
Then, the demon presented a flower bud to her. This time it was blue, blue as the sky seen through the finest sapphire, blue as her eyes.
Her frown vanished from her small face as she clutched the delicate flower in her hand. “What is she called?”
“Demimonde. The same as the black one.”
Not waiting for her to pronounce her curiosity about the color, demon said, “Demimondes changed colors to suit your eyes. They want to please you as long as you do not wish for their wilt.”
“A demon flower it is.”
She got up and placed the blue Demimonde in the little vase together with the black one. “Can you show yourself to me now?”
She heard a whisper of a sigh. “Not yet, my friend. There are still things that I wish to borrow from you.”
She woke up with a raw, aching sensation spreading from her head to the tips of her toes. Never before had the straw mattress brought her this much discomfort: every movement caused her to wince and every wince caused her pain and tears to pool at the rims of her eyes. Even discomfort was an understatement. The pain was bearable and short-lived once she was more careful and less hasty with her body; however, there was the feeling of countless tiny little thorns continuously pricking at her flesh that was maddening. She remembered having been bitten by a little ant when she was very small and the itch had been her worst torment. Now imagine a hundred ants, probable more, gnawing on her nerves. Moreover, she could not scratch no matter how horrible it was for fear that she would leave permanent damage to her uncovered, oversensitive flesh.
The demon had told her.
It was her skin, white as the virgin snow, that the demon had asked her. Like the first and the second times, she had complied to her friend’s wish.
Do not look into the stream, the demon had repeated over and over. It may drive you mad. Mad as my mother, she asked. Yes, mad as your mother. Incurable. Doomed. I would not have you become as such, swear to our Great Master, I would rather break into a thousand pieces. So please, stay in the house until I come back in the night. And remember (again) do not scratch!
Her sweet, sweet demon. She felt warmth pooling in her heart. She got up from her bed, dressed as carefully as she could with the wool and linen she had, and set out to the wood. Sorry, she murmured. Those poor, hapless creatures would starve if she neglected her patronage.
She supposed she felt a sting of pain in her chest when she witnessed the doe and pigeons that always ate from her hand fled from her, frightened beyond hope. She looked down at her skinless hand, her raw, red flesh and did not find the cause to be angered. The hideous, scary monster that was out for their tender flesh. Were she them, she reasoned that she too would flee from the monster’s sight as fast as she could. Still she hurt. How wrong of her to have thought that animals would look beyond the skin.
“Every creature with eyes finds it extremely difficult to look beyond the skin,” the demon said. “Because the skin is what most of them look at first, and to some, perhaps the only thing they can see. That is why we can only wander in human world under one guise or another. Even the Great Master is no exception, and His, no matter what shape or form, always captures the mortals’ deepest desires, and thrives on them. But in our world we never, just come as we are.”
“I’m different,” she protested, shaking her head.
“You are not, little girl, if you see the real me.”
She sulked, though she knew there was truth in the demon’s words. She herself had never looked beyond the skin really; she chose to feed the doe and pigeons because she thought them lovely, beautiful, innocent-looking, all the goodness in the world combined. All the time she had been ignoring the ugly toads and the slimy snakes. Today, the doe and pigeons had fled from her while the toads and the snakes had regarded her with their beady fearless eyes and stayed in their place.
She felt a hand on her hair with fingers and smooth skin. Gently it messaged her scalp like her mother used to do.
“A Demimonde for you.”
White and pure as virgin snow, with petals as smooth as her skin.
She looked ravishing between the black and the blue.
“Is your guise complete now?”
“It is, and it is not,” said the demon in their androgynous voice. “Still I lack a human voice.”
“What you are using to converse with me…”
“…is the demon voice. The demon whisper, as mortals say, that not all humans can hear.”
“But I can always hear you.”
“You are always special,” said the demon. “There are few humans who are attuned to the supernatural melodies and only they can communicate with the unseen and unheard. Sadly their number grows smaller still, alienated, discarded and slaughtered by their skeptical kin.”
So that was the “damned witch”, she recalled the villagers’ words, reeking of fear and disdain. Well, if witchery was her nature, she never felt ashamed.
“What can I lend you so that you have a human voice?”
The girl imagined the voice to be intangible, not physical like the hair, the eyes and the skin that the demon had borrowed so far.
The demon chuckled. “Oh, it is not so intangible. In fact everything is physical in one way or another: the mind to the brain, the sight to the eyes, the beauty to the hair and skin, and so on.”
“So, do you want to borrow my mouth, or my tongue?” This time the girl was not hesitant in voicing her question.
“May I borrow your tongue? I have yet found a way to remove the mouth,” the demon jested.
“Then my tongue you may have.”
In spite of the unfamiliar emptiness in her mouth, the girl found out with delight that not having her tongue was the least inconvenience she had experienced so far. The need to talk was nonexistent as she was mostly by herself during the day. She did not develop the habit of talking to herself, the trick that others would find useful in fighting off their loneliness. If she really had to, the thought of finally seeing the demon tonight, provided that with her human voice the guise was complete, kept her company all day.
The doe and the pigeons did not flee from her, seeing that it was not a skinless monster approaching them this time but a beautiful, harmless-looking girl they were used to. She ignored them however, and went to feed the toads and the snakes instead.
“A crimson Demimonde for your mellifluous voice.”
The girl did not know her own voice to possess such a velvety luster until she heard it speak to her. “Thank you,” she said, and placed the red Demimonde together with her other siblings. Their exquisite colors complimented one another so well that together, they were the most gorgeous things she had laid her eyes on. Normal flowers simply could not compare; they were beautiful all right, but their beauty blended in the surroundings, and became part of the overall landscape. Demimondes did not blend; instead they drained their surroundings off colors, making them lifeless and dull while they burnt lividly. She wished never for their wilt.
“I suppose you can see me now.”
“Without doubt, my darling.”
The shadow retreated and a figure came into her view. She gasped audibly, but with delightful surprise and joy rather than shock and fear. Here she was looking at her spitting image, down to the white cotton gown she was wearing.
Her more beautiful twin. Her superior half.
“No…” whispered the demon.
She reached out with her hand and the demon did the same. Their hands touched, feeling the mutual warmth and they both smiled. The same gesture, the identical smile, it was as if looking at the clearest mirror in the world.
“I have been longing to look at you with your eyes, touch you with your skin and ask with your voice if I can stay with you, now and always?”
Happiness overflowed her, threatening to burst her small chest open. She would very much like the demon to stay with her, now and always; however, she hated it when her rational voice always had the first say, “But won’t you have to return to your world? To your great Master whom you worship?”
The demon chuckled with her ringing voice. “And forfeit this perfect guise that I have so painstakingly crafted? No, my darling, the moment you lent me your hair, I was accepted to your world, and left mine behind. The Great Master consented to my leave.”
“For how long?” she asked meekly.
The demon’s eyes briefly shifted to the four Demimondes. “For as long as you wish the Demimondes not to wilt.”
“That would be eternity.” There were tears in her eyes and tears in her voice.
“Then eternity you shall have.”
The demon leaned in, licked away her tears, then proceeded to kiss her with her own lips. Tenderly as first, for her to accustom to, and then becoming passionately, bordering on desperation.
The Demimondes on the shelf were blooming.
Demimonde – that was the demon’s name from then on. And they was no longer ‘they’, but ‘she’.
The girl grew up to be a maiden, and Demimonde grew with her. They were inseparable, a pair of beautiful twins who shared the labor in the garden by day and the warmth of the blanket by night. With Demimonde, she forgot how to shed sad tears and with her, Demimonde forgot her previous eternal life brimmed with boredom and loneliness in the demon world. She had devoted to the Great Master, had worshipped him with all her fibers like each and every of her kin did night and day, but the Great Master gave no love in return, no cure for the forlornless plaguing every black heart. Love between the Master and His subjects went one-way; they accepted this truth as universal. Yet it was different in this human world: what she gave away would come back to her doubled, and affection flowed easily and naturally as the little spring in front of their shared hut. She might even have forgotten that she used to be a demon – was a demon still, being too comfort in her perfected guise.
But her power surfaced one night, in the form of a roaring angry mob and torches. Demimonde woke up, soaked in human sweats, and before she came to true understanding of the images in her dream, she had burst into loudly wails. Her cries disturbed the maiden’s sleep and she opened her eyes, confused as to why her dearest sister was making such heart-wrenching sounds in the middle of the night. No matter how she asked, the demon would not tell her an intelligible answer. The words disjointed, chocked in tears and Demimonde appeared to momentarily lose her human speech, which had become a part of her like her breath over the years. The maiden cradled her sister, laid her head on her bosoms and sang until Demimonde, calmed down, fell into the sweet embrace of sleep. She herself followed suit shortly after.
Her dream was as ugly and cruel as whatever had troubled Demimonde, and just as vague and incomprehensible.
Demimonde was restless these days. The maiden could see the previous dream had plagued her tremendously, but how and why, she could not figure out. Her sister held onto her silence like a cord that bound her life together, and she would sooner fall apart than let it go. Only her grief-stricken face and sunken eyes gave silent hints of the tumult gnawing her inside. She wished she could soothe Demimonde somehow, brought the peace back to her, but how, she did not know. All she could do was envelope her sister in her warm embrace, softly humming to her the nameless lullaby her mother used to sing to her. But even that could not prevent Demimonde from growing distant from her. It broke her heart to wake up one morning to find their shared bed empty and cold and Demimonde curling up next to a huge, hollow trunk outside their hut.
While peace was fragile in their small hut, outside the woods it was chaos. Draughts had been going on for years, hungers reigned and recently a terrible disease was sweeping across the devastated village, taking the young and the strong of the population in its dreadful wake. All hope was lost, and despair turned them to the witch they had banished into the deep, dark woods, and against the fear of tragedies that had befallen their predecessors for bringing harm to the little devil’s mother. Boiling in hatred and rage, that satanic witch must have lay a curse on them, and at the moment, she was peering at their miseries through the eyes of the dark creatures lurking in every nook and cranny, laughing at they perished, one by one, their corpses piling up and nourishing the vultures.
They gathered at the center of the village, all that remained. The gleam from their weapons and the torches in their hands seemed to the night to day.
They found the witch outside her lair. Such a face she had – even God could not craft a better visage. And such a dark, sinister heart – the Devil must be proud of his handiwork. The witch neither tried to escape nor cried when they dragged her back to the village to be burnt at the huge pyre at its center.
In her dead silence the villagers’ fear grew as they stared at her writhing form slowly devoured by the hungry flames. After the fire had died out, hours later, they did not find her blackened bones in the ash.
No one knew exactly how many decades had passed since the last one of the damned village drew their last breath. The burning of the witch had not lifted their curse – if any – and the plague, which made their skin blister and fall off and their blood boil, marked for death those draught and hunger had failed to. Soon the village was wiped out from the map altogether. Still, the deep, dark woods endured, growing stronger than ever, and so did the legend of the black-haired, blue-eyed witch. People told their children, and their grandchildren the story as a cautionary tale even after they settled on the once cursed land and for generations, none of them had mustered enough courage and strength to cross the thorny vines and venture into the heart of the woods.
Came a day when an adventurous and dashing young man, perhaps a knight, a lord’s son or even a prince, passed the village on his relentless journey. Oh, how the poor, honest villagers pled him to opt for a different route around the woods lest his life be endangered by the legendary witch. “There were men from the cities,” one would say, “men of high caliber who swore to put an end to the witch’s terror. They came in living men and came out horrifically disfigured cadavers.” “Their eyes gorged out, their body skinned and in their mouth where the tongue should be there was only blood,” another would add. Yet all the ghastly details had been turned a deaf ear to by the brave young man. He boldly declared that he would cross the witch’s territory, and slay her if needed be, provided that her legend proved to be no more than an old wives’ tale, a superstition, a tale to warn children from the dark places reserved for adults only.
In the villagers’ sigh, he rode past the thorny vines, penetrating the witch’s lair.
“What are you doing here?”
For hours the young man had been lost. Here, in this dark woods, all sense of direction seemed to be swallowed by the thick mist and wherever he rode, the trees and vines appeared the same. Taunting him they were. He might have been wandering in a circle for god’s sake and worse, signs of fatigue had begun to plague him. But he supposed Lady Luck was on his side today, because when he resigned to his fate of having to spend a night under these ominous canopies, with dark creatures lurking around, he saw a maiden in flowing white gown standing a few feet away. And she saw him, too, for she asked, “What are you doing here?”
He had not known angels until he saw her and heard her speak. “Terribly lost,” he answered. In the sky of your eyes.
“Would you please show me the way out?”
“Are you not afraid of the witch?”
He was a little taken aback by her surprise question.
“No. I don’t believe in her existence. Now…” He made no attempt to hide his scrutinizing eyes. “…I’m confident that the old hag either does not exist or has simply wasted away centuries ago.”
He could see the corners of her lips curve up ever slightly and her eyes mellowed. His heart melted at the sight.
“It’s getting dark. Come, I can let you stay the night.”
Hers was a small but very nice hut standing in the middle of a garden that stretched deeper and deeper into the heart of the woods. Carnations, roses, daisies… The vast array of colors gave his eyes a delightful blinding feast.
But even the whole garden pale in comparison with the four unfamiliar flowers arranged in a clay vase inside her hut. Black, white, red, blue, each shone with a vividness that gave an impression that they had a life of their own, even though they were merely flowers clipped from the stems, bound to wither in a few days’ time at most. And if Heaven had a scent, it would be their fragrance.
“Demimonde… That is how they are called.” The maiden spoke before he even asked, as if reading his mind.
“I’ve never seen anything like them before. So strange, and so very beautiful.”
“That is because they are demon’s flowers,” she explained. “Time doesn’t touch them, and they never wilt.”
The mention of “demon” should ring an alarm in him, yet he found it matter little in her presence. “Unearthly,” he breathed. Just like hers. “If I looked at them too long, would they take my soul away?”
Her perfect Cupid’s bow gave an illusion of a smile. “Only if your soul was worth taking.”
He stayed the night, thoroughly enjoying her sumptuous meal and the cozy, soft straw bed she prepared. The hut was small, and there seemed to be only one room and one bed. He had insisted that he should sleep on the ground but she had already disappeared before he could open his mouth again. He thought it odd that she would vanish from sight as soon as darkness blanketed the earth, but he reckoned she was only wary of strangers; she seemed to live here all alone. Was she an orphan? He had heard many stories about orphans being cast out from their community as they were thought to bring misfortune to the people. If that was the case, would she be happy to depart from this forsaken land with him?
Though the nocturnal creatures howled and croaked throughout the night, he had had the most pleasant dream ever, a dream that involved raven-black hair, midsummer-sky eyes, milky white skin and lips softer than the petals of the flowers that surrounded the hut.
He used up all his wits to come up with reasons to prolong his stay at the maiden’s place. To his utmost delight, she made neither questions nor denials, treating him with the same hospitality she had shown him in the first day. On the fourth night of his stay, he boldly asked for her hand in marriage. He longed for the moment he could bring her back to his kingdom and present her to his parents and the court the most beautiful maiden in the world, whom he would vow to love till the end of his life in front of the High Priest and Priestess. His whole being trembled at the vision of her in pristine white gown, golden tiara shining on her black hair, woven with roundest pearls harvested from the depth of the sea. She would make the finest princess in all the ten kingdoms.
“Someone borrowed my heart a long, long time ago,” she said in her mellifluous voice, to his dismay, “and it has yet to be returned.”
Twinkling with hints of moisture, her eyes lingered on the four strange flowers in the clay vase. They swayed as if responding to her words. When she turned to look at him, his heart broke to find not the smallest trace of emotions, only the distant politeness present always. Cold.
Had she ever been anything but polite and cold to him?
“But I love you,” he cried. “My heart is all yours.”
The maiden looked unmoved by his proclamation. “Your heart isn’t what I need. Instead, I would very much want something else from you.”
“Whatever it is, I would gladly give. For I would die without you.”
“Oh, don’t be so certain, my lord.” She stressed the last two words. Was that contempt in her tone? “Not until you listen to what I want from you. I want your hair – fair and shining as sunlight taken form, your eyes – deep and dark as the woods, your skin – the finest honey and finally, your tongue – the instrument of your sweet, eloquent declaration of love.”
She paused, staring at the shock rapidly seeping into his handsome countenance. “Would you be willing to give them to me, and be a hairless, skinless and blind mute for the rest of your life? Would you be able to go to that extent to prove your love which is so passionately and easily expressed?”
“Why… why would you want them?” he stammered. “What could they be of use to you?”
He was flabbergasted by her silvery ringing laughter – the first time he heard her laugh while she had been all but quiet and soft-spoken. “My lord, you are questioning a witch’s witchcraft. Very unwise.”
She stopped laughing and stared at him, her eyes shining and piercing his soul – how he had not noticed the sharpness of her eyes before. “What the villagers say are not the least false. Men entered the woods alive and went out dead. Do you know why? They were enchanted, and they surrendered themselves to the witch’s demand. They did not fight her, never tried to. Would you do the same?”
She shook her head, and the mask of cold politeness returned to her face. “You’d better leave this land while the sun is still high. At night, I cannot guarantee your well-being.”
“What about you? That means you’re not safe here, too.” He grasped her small hand, squeezing it. “Come with me, to my kingdom. You will be the most beautiful princess in the world.”
“This is my home, the safest place for me. Go, and do not come back. You can stay a couple of nights, but that’s the limit. For you, for any human.”
Her hand slipped from his slackened grip effortlessly and she drifted away faster than his eyes could follow. Like a phantasm. Cold sweats dampened his clothes despite it was in the late autumn. He shook his head and tried to calm himself. It was hard to tell whether what he had seen was real or imagined with the thick blanket of fog that would from time to time erase all sense of directions and logic.
Defeated, he went to retreat his horse, tied outside her hut, and mounted it.
He almost reached the entrance when a sudden pull caused him to reverse his directions. He had been a fool, he chided himself, for giving up just because of a few of her hardened words. Perhaps it was only her test, a small trial to see if he had been earnest in wanting to marry her. Of course, she had every reason to be cautious – every village girl with a head to think should know better than to trust strangers in fancy clothes – and so far he had proved her doubt to be true, that his words were just as light as the winds. Oh, he could stab himself if it allowed him to turn back time. Foolishness. Cowardice. His thighs squeezed the horse’s sides, urging it to run faster and faster. He had to apologize to her, giving her hard and concrete evidence that he loved her, that he really could not live without her. Giving her his heart should she demand proof, and anything else she desired. Then he would take her out of this woods, and to his palace, where a precious jewel such as her would shine the brightest.
The horse neighed loudly, hesitant to follow his instructions and he had to whip it. Its hooves thumped on the leave-covered ground.
The moon had hung high above him by the time the young man saw the flickering light from the maiden’s hut. The darkness surrounding everything vibrated with ominous hums but he paid it no mind as he got off his horse and crept noiselessly to her place. His hand was about to knock on her door when he heard her ringing laughter, so full of life and joy. He froze and retreated to a corner, where he could peer at her through the open window but the maiden could not spot him.
She appeared to be conversing with someone. He saw her smile, a warm, affectionate smile that was entirely different from the polite ones she had graced him with, and her perfectly shaped lips move. Sometimes she spoke loudly enough for him to pick up random words, and sometimes she only whispered or broke off in low giggles. Whoever in her company must be entertaining her tremendously, which he had failed during his short time staying. The young man felt a pang of jealousy. Still, no matter how he tried, he could not get even a glimpse of the other person in the hut. He decided to risk and creep a tad closer, and spied something, or someone moving in the shadow around the withering candle.
He saw the maiden stand up, her slender arms outstretched, and she took something into her embrace. He squinted his eyes. The duo swayed, coming closer to the candle. Closer. Just a little closer. His eyes widened. He heard a scream tear out his throat.
Both the maiden and the ‘creature’ – if that could be called a living being at all – turned to him, alarmed. The maiden’s eyes searched the darkness and found him effortlessly, her gaze a sharp dagger slicing through him. The ‘creature’ in her arms stirred and it appeared to be ‘looking’ at him with its vacant sockets.
Eyes were not the only thing it lacked. It was also hairless, no inch of its naked body was covered by skin, and from its throat only gurgling small noises came out.
The beauty and the grotesque creature, was it not the most frightening picture of all?
The maiden looked straight at him, the contours of her lips forming a curve. Both her smile and the light in her shining eyes were alien to him. At this moment, she was inspiring terror in him, not admiration and love. His throat clotted, he was petrified.
“Darling, if you had your eyes now, you would see how horrified he is,” she said to the creature clinging to her arms. “Every creature with eyes…”
It appeared to understand her, and nodded.
“You should have listened to her.”
Those were last words the maiden spoke, and the last he could hear.
Silvery moonlight bathed a soft glow on the naked body. Long but graceful limbs, small waist, straight back and toned muscles, this was the body of a man in his golden prime. His hair was short and fair, his eyes black enough to radiate light, the beauty of his youthful countenance matched the Adonis-esqueness of his body. Beside him stood the most precious jewel that shone brightly in the darkness of the deep woods as it did in the royal palace.
Together, they were a sight to behold and envy.
The young man took the maiden in his strong arms, pressing her slim body close to his.
“The most agreeable skin I have had after yours. I think I would weep when it decays,” a deep baritone said. “I have to admit I was deeply regretful when your fondness for him allowed him to leave.”
“Yet he came back, didn’t he, despite my warning?”
A chuckle. “My darling, did you honestly think he could fight your charms?” He caressed her cheeks with the tips of his fingers. “When even the shape of your lips could hook his soul?”
“No,” said the maiden, leaning to his touch. It was still strange to her, the feel of these fingers, but she would grow accustomed to it soon enough. Just like any other times.
“Would you rather have a new name to match your new guise?”
“I would rather keep Demimonde. After all, that is the name you first gave me.”
“Demimonde then,” she breathed, and kissed him on the lips, her kiss firm, certain, experienced and overwhelming with passion.
Dark creatures of the woods gathered around them to share the body laid at their feet.
It was already stuffed with police officers when Detective Colebourne took bold strides into the crime scene. With his left hand in his beige trench coat, he tipped his trademark black fedora in a casual greeting to his partner-for-life, Cerney, who did not bother to return the gesture, too busy jotting down detail after detail on his well-worn notebook. His dark strands crudely swept back, his steel rimmed glasses hung low on his straight nose bridge and his winter-blue eyes focusing on the yellow pages, the twenty-eight-year-old detective sported a stern look that easily discouraged Colebourne’s intended good-natured shoulder slap. A concentrating Cerney was a never-to-mess-with Cerney, Colebourne had learnt it the hard way back when he and his partner first met, both freshmen at the police training institution. So, instead of slapping Cerney’s arms, he raised his voice to announce his arrival.
“What’s up, mucker?”
Only until now did Cerney look up from his notebook. His left eyebrow arching ever slightly, he scrutinized his ‘late’ colleague as he did a suspect. Then his gaze fell on his wristwatch as he said, “So soon, Detective Colebourne? We hardly started.”
…started packing and coming back to the station. Colebourne did not fail to catch the mockery, thank you.
“Nah, bin late lest nicht,” said Colebourne, waving his leather gloved hand. “Yoo ken, Sunday an’ aw ‘at. Thanks God we hae ye.”
Cerney held up a lean forefinger. “Anything but that fake Scottish accent.” Colebourne shrugged, accepting his failure in attempting to amuse his colleague. “Okay. Thocht mah accent soonds bonnie genuine.” He gave one last shot, and earned a razor-sharp glare from an annoyed Cerney.
His eyes behind the cobalt-shaded glasses moved quickly around the crime scene, which happened to be a designer’s clothing shop. He clucked his tongue as he spotted the luxurious brands that would cost him a month’s pay, perhaps two, just for a small article of clothes that he probably would not wear more than three times. There was blood and bits of guts everywhere he looked and the scene appeared taken straight from a slasher movie. No wonder his nose could pick up the revolting odor of half-digested bacon and eggs somewhere around. Probably the newbies…. Or Croft, who always had a weak stomach for a homicide detective. Good thing his stomach remained quite strong however while Cerney, well, he did not know a thing that could stir his morbidly stoic bestfriend.
“So,” he said, tugging a cigarette between his lips and lit, “we have a werewolf in here or something? Want to brief me on that?” He leaned closer to the tall, sort of lanky man, draping an arm around his shoulder.
Cerney replied in flat tone, “My money’s on a vampire; werewolves wouldn’t let the place and objects intact.”
“Right, right. Any information on the unfortunate guy? Or girl… Not a girl, right?”
As always, Colebourne had a soft spot for the fairer sex. Not to be sexist but he would say it gave him greater distress if the victim of this horrific murder was a female.
A murder, right, not an accident or suicide. That was why he and Cerney had been dispatched to the scene.
“The victim’s male, around thirty-five, mixed race, probably Latino. Right now the guy is being put back together for further identification.”
“Put back?” Colebourne echoed.
Cerney opened a brown envelope and handed him a stack of photos, which could very well serve as a reference for someone who desperately wanted to cut down on his or her calorie intakes. Stressed on “desperately”. The detective studied the photos for some good minutes before he turned to his partner.
“Lucky us the head’s pretty whole. I think I know the guy – dear late Gonzales was no stranger to me. Got caught a few times. Jailed twice. Lock-breaking, stealing, drug-trafficking, that sort of stuff.” His gaze traveled around the place. “So karma has finally come to bite him in the ass, huh?”
“Traces left on the doors and devices suggest your friend here managed to break the lock and shut off the surveillance cameras. An incredible feat for an individual, I admit….”
“The boy got skills, I give him that.”
“… Unfortunately, he couldn’t get pass the top-notch security system of this shop. No property lost, according to the shop manager and cashier.”
“Any light on his cause of death?”
Cerney looked at him for a few seconds, and he swore he could see more than just a hint of mischief in those piercing blue eyes. He arched his dark eyebrows in reply.
“Torn apart,” Cerney stressed with his Cockney accent. “On first glance. We have to wait for the forensic guys for further detail.”
Colebourne tried to stay calm; however, his raised tone betrayed him. “Torn apart?”
“If you want an illustrative example, imagine tying the head and limbs to each chariot that goes different directions – the ancient Chinese’s favorite corporal punishment.”
“Thanks for details. Makes sense if that’s a werewolf. I suppose we should add the shop manager, cashier and all the sale staff on the list. Hell, that’s gonna be a long list,” Colebourne muttered under his breath.
“Got it done,” said Cerney, writing down a few more words before closing up his notebook. “All are having a coffee break at the station. Most of them perfect alibi though. We’ve been waiting for your much treasured interrogation techniques.”
Colebourne scoffed indignantly, “Do enlighten me, Detective Falke, why was I summoned here instead of there?”
“Why, I thought you would want to see the scene for yourself, Detective Jagdhund.” And a smirk crept up Cerney’s lips.
Colebourne swore his friend had planned to punish him the very first minute he was late to the scene. He held up both his hands in defeat.
“I bet you’ve taken every detail down already. Now let’s see if I can break those perfect alibis to pieces.”
As they were prepared to leave, Colebourne suddenly looked to the mannequins scattered around the shop. They too were covered in gore and thus, were being wrapped in plastic to be transferred to the forensic laboratory. “Last time I saw them, these girls weren’t all smiling like this,” said Colebourne. He pointed to an exquisite-looking one with tousled neon-blue hair and matching glass eyes. “Especially this one.”
“When was your ‘last time’?”
“Some weeks ago. Maybe a month or two. We should check if they have been recently replaced.”
Scratching his stubbly chin, Colebourne took a long pause to study the blue-haired mannequin. Indeed there was a curve etched on the contours of her lips; still, it was not so simple as an artist’s crafty knife carving into the doll’s face. The smile was not external but seemed to reach all the way beneath her artificial skin, and manifested in her slightly arched eyebrows and squinted eyes. The more he looked, the stronger his illusion grew – that he was looking at something with a soul rather than an empty plastic vessel.
His gaze shifted to another doll, and found a similar expression and a similar feeling. The third one he laid his eyes on was no different.
It was as if something or someone was terribly amusing to them and they broke into a smile as once.
Colebourne rubbed his eyes until his vision turned red. No, he was not high; as a matter of fact, he had not been high for half a month.
“You’re alright?” asked Cerney.
“Yeah, just give me the creeps, really,” Colebourne remarked at last as he broke out of his trance.
“Should I put them on the list, too?” Cerney tapped his capped pen on his notebook. Keeping a straight face and a serious tone to match, he asked, “Witness or suspect? Both?”
Colebourne gave him a dirty look as the two made towards their car.
Back to the Tales of Bizarrity series and introducing Colebourne and Cerney, two unlucky detectives who have failed to solve almost every bizarre case in this series. As I write them, I develop a sort of affection for the pair. Maybe they should have their own story. I don’t know. Depends on my mood.
***Tác phẩm cũng như nhân vật hoàn toàn thuộc về Joel7th
Ánh mặt Mạc Lâm hướng về bầu trời xa xăm nơi có những mặt trăng anh không thể nhìn thấy. “Nhìn chúng, tôi chợt nhớ ra một điều…”
“Cậu nhớ ra điều gì về bản thân mình sao?”
Anh Phi khẩn trương hẳn. Phải chăng Mạc Lâm đang khôi phục ký ức?
Cậu chầm chậm lắc đầu. “Không phải. Cái tôi nhớ ra là cách trở về thế giới của Linh Thú.”
… Tiếng nổ đinh tai nhức óc. Trời xanh chuyển xám. Tiếng gào khóc của đứa trẻ bị nhấn chìm trong gào thét và hỗn loạn…
Anh Phi từng có một gia đình bình thường như bao đứa trẻ trong thành phố Z, khác chăng chỉ là gia đình anh sung túc hơn gia đình chúng một chút. ‘Một chút’ ở đây tất nhiên là cách nói khiêm tốn. Là con một của gia đình giàu có nhất, nhì thành phố, anh từng được nhiều người xuýt xoa gọi là ‘hoàng tử bé’, là số ‘đẻ bọc điều’, sung sướng ngay từ lúc mới lọt lòng. Hơn nữa, không như nhiều bậc phụ huynh khác vì mải lo kiếm tiền mà bỏ bê con cái, cha mẹ anh dù bận rộn mấy vẫn dành thời gian cho con trai bé bỏng của mình. Những buổi dã ngoại, câu cá hay xem phim cùng cha mẹ và Nguyên ca luôn là ký ức đẹp đẽ nhất thời thơ ấu của anh. Gia đình luôn là niềm tự hào của Anh Phi đối với bạn bè đồng trang lứa. Cho đến một ngày…
Anh Phi bật dậy, trán ướt mồ hôi lạnh. Giấc mơ ấy thỉnh thoảng vẫn ghé thăm khiến anh giữa đêm bừng tỉnh trong kinh hoàng rồi trằn trọc đến sáng, một giấc mơ suốt bao nhiêu năm chưa từng phai nhạt, từng chi tiết từng chi tiết vẫn rõ ràng và sống động như mới xảy ra hôm qua.
Trong mơ, anh thấy mình lại là cậu bé tám tuổi, bàn tay nhỏ bé nắm lấy những ngón tay thon dài của Nguyên ca, đôi mắt xanh trong veo nhìn theo chiếc máy bay mà cha mẹ đã bước lên. Họ vẫn thường như vậy, đi đi về về giữa hai quốc gia, có khi họ đưa anh theo cùng – khi anh không phải đến trường, có khi để anh lại cho Nguyên ca trông nom. Một năm mười mấy lần, mỗi lần ngắn thì dăm bữa nửa tháng, dài thì một, hai tháng, cậu bé Anh Phi đã sớm quen rồi, những lần tiễn cha mẹ ra sân bay, anh chẳng còn khóc nháo, níu kéo đòi quà này quà nọ như những cô, cậu bé khác nữa.
Âm thanh đó mãi mãi là một vết hằn trong ký ức Anh Phi. Nguyên ca và anh vừa bước đến xe, một tiếng nổ đinh tai nhức óc đã vang lên. Tiếp theo là la hét và hỗn loạn tột độ. Bầu trời xanh như đôi mắt Anh Phi trở thành xám ngoét…
Chiếc máy bay vừa cất cánh được bảy phút đã rơi xuống, bốc cháy phừng phừng, toàn bộ hành khách đều tử nạn. Khi thi thể không còn nguyên vẹn của cha mẹ được đưa về, Anh Phi úp mặt vào ngực Nguyên ca, khóc không thành tiếng.
Từ sau chủ nhật định mệnh 29 tháng 11 năm đó, Anh Phi chính thức trở thành hoàng tử mồ côi sở hữu trong tay khối tài sản bao nhiêu người mơ mà không được. Nhưng tiền bạc có là gì với một đứa trẻ tám tuổi vừa mất đi hai người thân yêu nhất? Một thời gian dài ngoại trừ đi học, Anh Phi không bước chân khỏi nhà, cũng không nói chuyện hay tiếp xúc với bất cứ ai ngoài trợ lý thân cận nhất của cha mẹ anh, Nguyên ca. Những món đồ chơi đắt tiền họ hàng hay đối tác làm ăn của công ty gửi đến đều bị anh đập nát rồi vương vãi khắp nhà, còn anh thì ngồi bệt ra sàn vừa khóc vừa gọi cha mẹ. Những lúc như thế, Nguyên ca lại lặng lẽ ôm anh vào lòng, mặc anh khóc cho thỏa thích rồi chìm vào giấc ngủ. Hai năm trôi qua, nỗi đau trong anh mới phần nào nguôi ngoai.
Theo di chúc của cha mẹ Anh Phi (họ mỗi năm đều làm di chúc một lần, đề phòng bất trắc), Nguyên ca trở thành người giám hộ cho cậu thiếu gia nhà họ Trần đồng thời giữ chức chủ tịch tập đoàn cho đến khi Anh Phi đủ mười tám tuổi sẽ từ từ giao lại cho anh tiếp quản. Nhưng đến năm mười tám tuổi, Anh Phi lại không hề có ý nguyện tiếp nối sự nghiệp gia đình như mong muốn của cha mẹ quá cố. Họ hàng xa gần nặng nhẹ khuyên bảo lẫn dọa nạt đều không làm anh thay đổi quyết định, chỉ một câu “Cháu không thích kinh doanh, cũng không thích hợp với kinh doanh” nhẹ tênh đã giao lại toàn bộ cổ phần cho Nguyên ca để bản thân thỏa sức theo đuổi nghề nghiệp mình yêu thích. Bấy lâu nay Nguyên ca không phải đã quản lý rất tốt mọi công việc hay sao? Không có con người tài năng này ra sức gánh vác thì sau khi chủ tịch và phu nhân đều qua đời mà người thừa kế duy nhất lại còn quá non nớt, tập đoàn nếu không sụp đổ thì nhất định cũng bị thay họ. Quyết định giao lại toàn quyền quản lý cho Nguyên ca ngoài việc đổi lấy tự do cho bản thân Anh Phi còn là tuyên bố chắc nịch dẹp tan mọi xì xào, bàn tán của những phe chống đối. Xem như đó là món quà đền đáp hai mươi năm ân tình của người ấy đối với gia đình anh.
Nguyên ca không nhiều lời, chỉ hỏi lại anh một câu: “Cậu chắc chắn đó là điều cậu muốn?”
“Em chắc chắn,” Anh Phi đáp.
Nguyên ca im lặng, lau cặp kính trong tay một lúc lâu mới chầm chậm mở miệng. “Anh rất cám ơn sự tin tưởng tuyệt đối của cậu, nhưng anh có hai điều kiện.”
Không chờ Anh Phi mở miệng đồng ý, Nguyên ca đã tiếp, “Một là, tập đoàn không đổi họ. Cậu không tiếp quản thì sau này sẽ có con cậu, cháu cậu tiếp quản. Hai là, sau khi cậu ra trường sẽ không đi làm thuê cho người khác. Bất kể cậu chọn ngành nghề gì, bác sỹ, giảng viên hay bồi bàn, cậu cũng trở về làm việc cho gia đình. Cậu hứa chứ?”
“Em hứa.” Anh Phi không có lý do gì phản đối. Bất cứ quyết định gì của Nguyên ca anh cũng không phản đối. Khi đưa ra đề nghị này, Anh Phi đã biết Nguyên ca chắc chắn sẽ nhận lời, cũng đoán được điều kiện anh đưa ra. Ai cũng nhắc nhở anh người thông minh, tài năng như Nguyên Di Hiên nhất định tâm tư phức tạp, tràn đầy tham vọng, dã tâm. Tâm tư phức tạp thì Anh Phi thừa nhận, ngay đến anh cũng không dám đảm bảo mình thấu hiểu Nguyên ca nhưng tham vọng, dã tâm thì không. Anh hoàn toàn tin tưởng vào con người Nguyên ca, cũng như tin tưởng vào quyết định của cha mẹ mình khi lập di chúc.
Đối với người đàn ông này, Anh Phi đã sớm xem là một thành viên gia đình chứ không đơn thuần chỉ là một người giúp việc thân cận của cha mẹ anh. Sau khi họ qua đời, Nguyên ca trở thành chỗ dựa tinh thần duy nhất, thay thế cha mẹ quan tâm, chăm sóc anh cho đến khi trưởng thành.
Thân thiết, tin tưởng là vậy nhưng Anh Phi vẫn luôn cảm thấy giữa họ dường như có một vách ngăn không thể gọi tên. Dù Nguyên ca vẫn chu toàn nhiệm vụ của một người giám hộ (và hơn thế) nhưng Anh Phi có năn nỉ đến mức nào, anh cũng quyết không chịu dọn về căn biệt thự trên đồi này. Lý do, anh không hề nói, Anh Phi sau nhiều lần hỏi bất thành cũng bỏ cuộc. Lớn hơn một chút, Anh Phi học cách tôn trọng bí mật và quyền tự do cá nhân, không còn bắt anh dọn về ở chung nữa.
Một cậu bé sống một mình trong căn biệt thự rộng thênh thang quả có chút khiến người ta thương cảm. Nhưng mười lăm năm trôi qua, Anh Phi cũng dần làm quen với cuộc sống như vậy.
Anh Phi lịch thiệp, rộng rãi, quen biết rất nhiều bạn bè. Anh lại rất đào hoa, tháng này nghe tin anh cặp với hoa khôi trường này, tháng sau đã nghe anh tay trong tay với hot girl trường nọ. Thế mà hiếm ai biết được, Thiếu Gia sợ cảm giác ở một mình thế nào. Quen biết nhiều bạn bè, cặp kè lung tung hay nuôi nhiều chó chẳng qua đều là những biện pháp giúp xua bớt đi sự trống vắng trong căn biệt thự này mà thôi.
Mười lăm năm, người ra vào biệt thự thì nhiều nhưng người sống ở đây chỉ có một.
Ba tháng gần đây, căn biệt thự xuất hiện thêm một thành viên nữa. Cảm giác khi mở cửa ra sẽ có ai đó ở trong đợi mình thật không tệ chút nào.
Nghĩ đến cậu ‘Linh Thú’ ngộ nghĩnh đó trong lòng anh chợt dâng lên một cảm giác ấm áp khó tả. Dù sao cũng không ngủ lại được, không bằng tìm cậu nói chuyện một chút. Giờ giấc nghỉ ngơi của Linh Thú khác con người, cậu ngủ vào nhiều thời điểm trong ngày chứ không nhất định vào ban đêm, vì vậy Anh Phi không lo mình sẽ quấy rầy mộng đẹp của cậu (nếu như Linh Thú cũng mơ giống như người).
Sôpha trong phòng khách trống trơn, vậy chỉ còn một khả năng: sân thượng. Khóe môi treo một nụ cười, Anh Phi mở tủ lấy ra hộp kẹo chocolate rồi lên lầu.
Ánh trăng rất sáng, hôm nay là ngày rằm. Anh Phi bình thường ít khi lưu ý đến trăng sao, hôm nay bất ngờ phát hiện, trăng tròn thì ra sáng và đẹp đến vậy.
Mạc Lâm nằm dưới ánh trăng, gác một tay dưới đầu làm gối, thong dong thoải mái như thi sĩ thời xưa uống rượu thưởng nguyệt, có điều, cậu không uống rượu, chỉ uống sữa pha mật ong, nước trái cây hay coke. Anh Phi cứ đinh ninh khi ‘hấp thu linh khí’, cậu sẽ chọn tư thế thiền như kiểu yoga cơ, những lần trước đều tưởng cậu ngủ gật nên mới nằm lăn ra vậy.
Nghe tiếng bước chân, đôi mắt cậu đang khép hờ liền mở to, tròng mắt sóng sánh như chứa nước ngước lên nhìn anh. Đôi mắt Mạc Lâm dù trong hình người hay hình thú đều ẩn chứa một thứ mê lực, nhìn quá lâu chỉ sợ bản thân cũng bị thôi miên. Mỗi lần ngắm đôi mắt ấy, một cảm giác quen thuộc khó lý giải lại trỗi lên, nhắc rằng anh đã gặp chúng ở đâu rồi, chỉ là bây giờ không cách nào nhớ ra chủ nhân đôi mắt là ai, như thể trí nhớ bị nhốt trong một két sắt kiên cố mà ai đó đã vứt mất chìa khóa.
“Tưởng anh ngủ rồi,” cậu lơ đễnh hỏi, người vẫn biếng nhác nằm im, không có ý định ngồi dậy.
“Ngủ rồi, tỉnh dậy, không ngủ lại được nên lên đây xem cậu thế nào,” Anh Phi đáp.
“Ngủ không được? Tôi có thể giúp đó.”
“Thôi khỏi. Dù sao mai cũng được nghỉ, có gì ngủ bù cũng được.”
Anh Phi chưa có hứng thú ‘thử nghiệm’ phép thuật của cậu trên bản thân mình đâu.
Một viên chocolate đưa đến miệng Mạc Lâm. “Há miệng!”
Mạc Lâm ngoan ngoãn làm theo, đôi môi vô tình chạm nhẹ vào ngón tay cầm viên kẹo. Anh Phi không hề bối rối, bàn tay đưa về liền bóc một viên kẹo khác cho vào miệng mình. Hình như từ lúc ở chung với Mạc Lâm, Anh Phi không ít thì nhiều cũng nhiễm tính hảo ngọt của cậu mất rồi. Lúc trước chocolate do bạn gái tặng có chất đầy tủ lạnh anh cũng chẳng đụng đến miếng nào, cuối cùng để chúng hết date rồi tiếc nuối tiễn ra thùng rác.
Quả thực, sự xuất hiện của Mạc Lâm ở nhà anh đã khiến Anh Phi không chỉ thói quen ăn uống mà cả nếp sinh hoạt cũng có nhiều thay đổi. Nếu là trước đây, sau giờ làm việc, anh hay cùng một số đồng nghiệp đi ăn uống, có khi còn đi bar đến khuya mới về (tuy sáng hôm sau vẫn dậy sớm chạy bộ rất đúng giờ) thì bây giờ, những cuộc vui như vậy đều giảm hẳn. Đồng nghiệp thắc mắc, anh chỉ lấp lửng. Đồng nghiệp trêu phải chăng anh có ‘gấu’ rồi, bị ‘gấu’ tròng dây vào cổ, giữ rịt lấy thì anh chỉ cười cười. Chẳng biết từ lúc nào Anh Phi dần nảy sinh cảm giác trông chờ khoảnh khắc về nhà.
Mạc Lâm đột nhiên ngồi bật dậy, ánh mắt ôn hòa chợt biến sắc bén hướng thẳng đến ngọn cây trước mặt.
“Trên cành cây có một con quạ,” cậu đáp.
Anh Phi cũng thử nhìn theo hướng cậu chỉ nhưng dù căng mắt ra cũng chẳng thấy gì ngoài bóng tối. Thầm cảm thán, mắt Linh Thú sao mà tinh thế, giữa một màu đen thẫm mà vẫn nhìn ra một con quạ lông đen! Anh Phi thật muốn bắt chước phim kiếm hiệp, chắp tay bái cậu rồi hô lớn bốn chữ “Tại hạ bái phục!”
“Một con quạ thì sao? Tôi vẫn hay bắt gặp nó đậu trên cành cây táo nhà mình.”
Tuy không thấy nhưng Anh Phi không lạ gì con quạ này. Ban đầu anh nghĩ nó là điềm xui, cố ý xua đuổi vậy nhưng dẫu làm gì nó cũng không chịu bay đi, riết rồi thành quen, anh để nó tùy ý chiếm lấy một cành cây làm tổ. Con quạ cũng thuần, chưa gây ra gì quá đáng.
“Tôi cảm thấy con quạ này có gì kỳ kỳ.”
Chắc nó cũng thấy cậu kỳ kỳ nên chú ý đó mà. Nghĩ vậy nhưng anh lại nói, “Kỳ ở chỗ tôi có đuổi nó cũng chẳng chịu bay đi, có khi ‘nghiện’ táo trên cây rồi cũng nên. Cậu mặc kệ đi, không sao đâu.”
Mạc Lâm nhíu mày nhìn chăm chăm vào màn đêm. Cậu nhấc tay phải lên, từ đầu ngón trỏ bắn ra một tia sáng xanh nhắm thẳng vào cành táo.
Một tiếng quạ kêu khô khốc vang lên, sau đó là âm thanh vỗ cánh phành phạch cùng cành lá xào xạc.
“Này này, cậu làm gì vậy?” Anh Phi hoảng hồn kêu lên, tay nắm chặt cổ tay cậu.
“Thử con quạ đó,” Mạc Lâm đáp gọn. “Quả nhiên nó không phải quạ thường.”
“Thường hay không thường cái gì cậu giải thích dùm tôi cái! Khi không lại lấy con nhà người ta làm bia tập Nhất Dương Chỉ!”
Nói gì thì nói, con quạ đó ở đây bao nhiêu năm, cũng xem như ‘bạn già’ của anh rồi. Nếu một ngày nó không còn anh cũng thấy thiêu thiếu.
“Nếu là quạ thường thì tôi đã bắn trúng rồi. Đằng này không những nó nhìn thấy tôi bắn, còn tránh được nữa.”
“Vậy nếu trúng thì sao?”
“Không sao cả,” cậu đáp tỉnh bơ, “chỉ mất ý thức một lát thôi.”
“Chỉ mất ý thức một lát thôi”, cậu đùa đấy à? Rớt từ cành cao xuống có mà đi đời nhà ma! Thằng nhóc này giả ngốc hay ngốc thật vậy trời? Không lẽ đúng như người ta nói, mèo thường ghét chim chóc?
“Nghe lời tôi,” Anh Phi nghiêm giọng – giọng anh thường dùng khi răn đe những bệnh nhân nhí của mình, “đừng bắn con quạ đó nữa.”
“Nhưng nó không bình thường,” cậu cãi lại. “Nhỡ nó…”
“Nó ở đây bao nhiêu năm mà có xảy ra chuyện gì đâu. Để nó yên đi, được không?”
Hai từ cuối Anh Phi mềm giọng, gần như năn nỉ, đồng thời anh bóc một viên kẹo chocolate đưa đến môi Mạc Lâm. Anh biết cậu nhỏ này tính như trẻ con, ưa ngọt không ưa nặng, dỗ dành một chút thì cậu sẽ nghe theo. Cũng bằng cách này mà anh thuyết phục được cậu chịu khó ở trong cũi những ngày dì Thu đến dọn đẹp.
À, đừng quên bộ figure X-Men: First Class chứ.
Cậu im lặng, nhìn thẳng vào mắt Anh Phi rồi nhìn sang tay anh. Sau một lúc, cậu há mồm đón lấy viên kẹo. “Tôi hứa,” vừa ngậm kẹo trong mồm cậu vừa nói.
Anh Phi mỉm cười hài lòng, bất giác đưa tay xoa đầu cậu. Giờ anh mới biết câu “tóc mượt như tơ” không phải nói quá mà là sự thật. Chẳng bù với tóc anh, ngắn ngủi và cứng ngắc như cỏ khô, sờ vào mất cả hứng.
Anh Phi rụt tay về. Sờ lâu một chút nhỡ lại muốn lấy lược ra chải đầu cho thằng bé thì tiêu. Các cô bạn gái khi còn trong thời gian cặp kè vẫn thường trêu rằng anh có hair fetish, điều này anh cũng không phủ nhận.
Anh Phi bắt chước cậu, nằm xuống sàn, gối đầu lên tay. Sàn gạch cách lớp áo thun lành lạnh nhưng nằm quen rồi cũng thấy dễ chịu. Nhất thời không nghĩ ra chuyện gì để nói, cả hai đều ngửa mặt lên trời ngắm trăng sao. Xung quanh họ chỉ có tiếng xào xạc của gió luồn qua cành lá những chậu đỗ quyên đặt ở bốn góc sân thượng. Nói chuyện với cậu khiến anh quên đi cơn ác mộng ban nãy, bây giờ im lặng khiến cho cảm giác đau thắt khi anh trong mơ bấu chặt lấy cánh tay Nguyên ca, gào khóc đòi cha mẹ tràn ngập lồng ngực. Bộ não con người cũng thật lạ, những ký ức đau đớn thường khắc sâu trong khi những kỷ niệm ngọt ngào lại dễ trở thành nạn nhân của thời gian.
Cậu mở miệng sau một hồi im lặng, đánh thức anh khỏi những suy tưởng vẩn vơ. Anh đưa tay gạt nhẹ giọt nước mắt chưa kịp lăn xuống.
“Anh nhìn thấy bao nhiêu mặt trăng?”
Một câu hỏi kỳ lạ nhưng Anh Phi vẫn trả lời, như một cách khiến bản thân không chú ý đến hồi ức đau buồn, “Một. Sao cậu hỏi vậy?”
“Thì ra con người chỉ nhìn thấy một mặt trăng thôi.”
“Vậy cậu nhìn thấy bao nhiêu?”
Anh Phi sửng sốt, “Chín ?!”
Khoa học chưa phát hiện ra điều này! Quả là tin chấn động!
Nhìn vẻ mặt Anh Phi, Mạc Lâm liền giải thích, “Đúng ra là ‘Thập Nguyệt’ nhưng thời điểm hiện tại chỉ có chín mặt trăng thôi. Mặt trăng thứ mười hiếm khi xuất hiện lắm.”
“Tới tận mười mặt trăng? Vậy mà con người lại chỉ thấy được một!”
“Linh thần cho phép Linh Thú trông thấy những mặt trăng con người không trông thấy.”
“Cả máy móc cũng không phát hiện ra?!”
“Máy móc con người tạo ra nên đâu khác gì con người.”
Anh Phi kinh ngạc nhìn Mạc Lâm, không khỏi đồng ý với cậu. Điều anh bất ngờ chính là cậu bé anh vẫn cho là trẻ con lớn xác này lại đưa ra một nhận định sâu sắc như vậy.
Ánh mặt Mạc Lâm hướng về bầu trời xa xăm nơi có những mặt trăng anh không thể nhìn thấy. “Nhìn chúng, tôi chợt nhớ ra một điều…”
“Cậu nhớ ra điều gì về bản thân mình sao?”
Anh Phi khẩn trương hẳn. Phải chăng Mạc Lâm đang khôi phục ký ức?
Cậu chầm chậm lắc đầu. “Không phải. Cái tôi nhớ ra là cách trở về thế giới của Linh Thú.”
Trái tim anh chợt co thắt mãnh liệt. Cảm giác chẳng dễ chịu hơn lúc cậu nói cậu không thể yêu con người bao nhiêu.
Vốn dĩ nên mừng cho cậu vậy mà…
Mạc Lâm như không nhận ra thay đổi trên nét mặt Anh Phi, bình thản nói tiếp, “Khi ‘Thập Nguyệt’ xuất hiện, linh thần sẽ dẫn đường cho tôi trở về.”
Cổ họng khô khốc, Anh Phi nhận ra giọng mình khàn đi thấy rõ.
Mạc Lâm im lặng suy tính một lúc rồi mới đáp, “Chẳng ai có thể đoán được, dù là Linh Thú mạnh nhất trong truyền thuyết. Có thể là ngày mai hay tháng sau, năm sau hay một trăm năm sau không chừng.”
Một tia vui vẻ như sợi tơ bất giác len vào tâm Anh Phi. Anh giật mình, khẽ liếc qua Mạc Lâm. Ánh trăng mờ nhạt chiếu lên gương mặt cậu tạo nên một vẻ mị hoặc liêu trai.
Một ý nghĩ kỳ lạ nảy ra, phải chăng yêu quái trong các câu chuyện cổ không phải trí tưởng tượng của con người mà là những Linh Thú đã nương theo ‘Thập Nguyệt’ đến thế giới này? Cũng không phải hoàn toàn không có cơ sở đâu. Những ngày sống cùng Mạc Lâm, những điều cậu làm được cũng chẳng khác mấy phép thuật miêu tả trong những câu chuyện kia. Chỉ riêng chuyện hóa thành mèo thôi cũng đủ để gọi cậu là “yêu tinh” rồi.
Anh bật cười với ý nghĩa Mạc Lâm là một ‘Miêu Tinh’, tạm thời quên đi cảm giác khó chịu ban nãy.
“Anh cười gì thế?”
“Không có gì. Tôi chỉ đang liên tưởng đến những câu chuyện cổ thôi. Yêu quái trong đó không chừng là dựa trên Linh Thú mà tạo nên.”
Mạc Lâm đương nhiên chưa đọc những câu chuyện ấy – Anh Phi còn không rõ cậu biết đọc chữ hay không – nhưng cậu đã xem hết bộ phim Thanh Xà – Bạch Xà. Và cậu hoàn toàn không thiện cảm với cách con người gọi Thanh Xà và Bạch Xà là “yêu nghiệt”.
Ánh mắt cậu khi tức giận càng sáng ngời như sao. “Con người nghĩ Linh Thú xấu xa vậy sao?”
“Con người luôn sợ hãi và đề phòng với những gì mình không hiểu rõ mà,” anh phân trần. “Cậu xem X-Men cũng thấy rồi đấy, đều là con người với nhau mà họ còn nghi kỵ chứ chưa nói đến một giống loài khác mạnh hơn hẳn.”
“Anh ban đầu cũng vậy?”
Cậu nhắc lại chuyện cũ khiến Anh Phi có chút bối rối, đành cười trừ. “Cũng có một chút. Nhưng khi biết cậu rồi thì không còn nữa. Bây giờ tôi xem cậu như một người bạn, một người em trai vậy.”
Bàn tay đặt lên vai Mạc Lâm, ấn nhè nhẹ.
“Mà đừng nói vấn đề này nữa. Nếu ‘Thập Nguyệt’ kia cả trăm năm mới xuất hiện, cậu vẫn chờ? Linh Thú không có tuổi thọ sao?”
“Sau khi trưởng thành thì không.”
Nhưng con người thì có. Nếu thực sự như vậy, khi ‘Thập Nguyệt’ xuất hiện, tôi cũng đã nằm sâu dưới mấy tấc đất rồi. Điều này anh không nói ra miệng.
“Ngoài chờ đợi ra, không thể làm gì sao?” Anh Phi hỏi.
Anh Phi thở dài, im lặng đồng ý. Trên đời quả thực có những chuyện nằm ngoài tầm kiểm soát của mình. Con người cũng vậy, Linh Thú cũng vậy.
“Ít ra cũng có tôi cùng cậu chờ, đỡ hơn cậu một mình lang thang ở thế giới xa lạ này.”
Sợi tơ vui vẻ vừa nãy biến thành một niềm hy vọng mơ hồ. Không cần đến một trăm năm, chỉ cần cậu ở lại với tôi lâu lâu một chút.
Nhưng… hy vọng mơ hồ vừa nhen nhóm lại bị bất an bao phủ.
Bàn tay bất giác siết chặt lấy tay cậu.
Mạc Lâm không phản đối, mấy ngón tay còn đan nhẹ vào tay Anh Phi. Khóe môi cậu hiện lên một đường cong đẹp đẽ.
Hết chương 5
Anh Phi: tôi cảm thấy hình như cô có tư tưởng ‘hành’ tôi. Hôm bữa thì nghe Mạc Lâm nói cậu ta không thể yêu con người. Hôm nay thì lại cho cậu ta nhớ ra đường trở về.
Joel: Chứ cậu muốn Mạc Lâm không về được à? Dù sao cũng cho cậu được nắm tay người ta rồi còn gì.
Anh Phi: Hết 5 chương mới được một cái nắm tay TAT.
Joel: Yên tâm, tôi còn nhiều ý tưởng hành cậu lắm *cười lạnh*
Anh Phi*toát mồ hôi* : Cô là mẹ ruột hay mẹ ghẻ vậy?
Joel: Mẹ ruột Mạc Lâm. Với cậu thì 50-50.
Anh Phi: Bất công TAT.
Quạ-chan: @#$%^&* (tiếng quạ, ngoài Mạc Lâm ra chẳng ai hiểu được)
Joel: (không hiểu nhưng ráng trả lời) Yên tâm, tôi bảo đảm, anh không phải nhân vật ‘qua đường’. Này, gắn mấy cọng lông vào đi kẻo mất rồi không mọc lại được đâu.
Mười năm học, tôi hiểu những cốc chè đỗ đen mẹ tôi tự tay nấu không phải để thưởng cho một điểm mười toán mà để tôi tiếp tục ngày hôm sau mang về một điểm mười vật lý, một điểm mười thể dục hay một điểm mười của bất kỳ môn học nào khác... Nó chỉ có nhiệm vụ mang lại cho tôi càng nhiều ca lo càng tốt [...] Mười năm học, tôi hiểu những bộ óc lợn bố tôi xếp hàng từ sáng đến chiều mới mua được không phải để thưởng cho một điểm mười văn mà để tôi tiếp tục ngày hôm sau mang về một điểm mười lịch sử, một điểm mười tập quân sự... Đến bây giờ tôi vẫn nhớ những bộ óc lợn để trong bát nhôm cho vào nồi cơm hấp, bao nhiêu muối vẫn thấy tanh, vẫn phải húp một hơi hết sạch... Chè đỗ đen, óc lợn hấp nồi cơm, tôi có nhiệm vụ chuyển chúng thành những điểm mười, thành những lời khen trong học bạ: xuất sắc, chăm chỉ, chuyên cần, nghiêm túc, rất có tương lai. Rất có tương lai là lời nhận xét bố mẹ tôi tâm đắc nhất. Rất có tương lai có tác dụng giúp bố mẹ tôi ngày hôm sau tiếp tục hoàn thành nhiệm vụ nấu chè đỗ đen và xếp hàng cả ngày mua óc lợn. Cứ như thế một vòng tròn ân cần khép kín. Cứ như thế ba chúng tôi dính chặt lấy nhau bởi chữ nhiệm vụ. (Chinatown - Thuận)