A Special Pain and Wonder
Coming in November 2003 from Roc (Penguin-Putnam)
Limited Edition Coming Summer 2003 from Subterranean Press
to pre-order Low Red Moon
Narcissa Snow parks the black Oldsmobile at the dead end of
Cullom Street and sits watching the house a moment before she gets out of
the car. Only the second time that she's seen it, the first just yesterday,
but the realtor wouldn't shut up, so she couldn't really see
it. The fat, smiling woman chattering on and on and on about things
that would never matter to Narcissa — new kitchen appliances, work on the
roof, the fresh coats of white paint.
"It was a terrible mess a few years back," the woman said. "Just falling apart. A bunch of hippie kids used to live up here and they'd let it go. A shame. It's a good old house, really."
"I'm sure," Narcissa said.
"Did you live in Savannah long? I have an aunt—"
"It's exactly what I'm looking for," and Narcissa smiled and thought that the woman's expression might have changed, then, a flickering, almost imperceptible shift, there and gone again, fear or something finer, and "Very good," the realtor said. "We can take care of the paperwork back at the office."
The house built more than a hundred years ago, the realtor said, raised at the other end of that late, blood-red century so recently deceased; war and murder, deaths and shattered minds, broken spir-its, the shit and piss that men have dragged themselves through in their hunger for an end.
"I see you," Narcissa says, aloud though she knows this house could hear her perfectly well without words, without her voice, that a house like this hears everything. The house it is because of everything it's heard and seen and felt playing out inside its walls, beneath its ceilings. Mad house, sour place, once upon a time ago good place driven insane by happenstance, driven sick by the minds that have lived and dreamed inside its rooms. Not evil, no, Narcissa knows evil houses well enough to be sure — not evil, only mad. Left at last to rot in this lonely patch of trees and strangling kudzu vines on the side of this mountain and Narcissa imagines how much the house would have welcomed that decay. I will die, finally, it must have thought. I will forget everything, forever, but then the hateful carpenters and painters and plumbers, their busy hammers and brushes and PVC transplants, to patch it back together again and haul the house on Cullom Street back from the precious edge of oblivion.
"Maybe, when I am done," Narcissa tells the house, "maybe then I will burn you to the ground. I can be merciful." But it can see inside her and the house knows she's a liar.
Narcissa takes the slender leather satchel from the pas-senger seat and gets out of the Olds, the car she stole in Charleston almost a month ago. "Just a few more bad dreams, that's all," she says and the house cringes, floorboards drawing back the smallest fraction of an inch, the stiff flinch of tar-paper shingles and goose bumps down cloudy windowpanes.
"You don't have to be afraid of me," she says. "You're a far, far more terrible thing than me, after all. Think about it," but she can tell that the house has no intention of believing anything she says. The doubtful shadows crouched apprehensive on the wide front porch, a stubborn darkness clinging there despite the noonday sun-shine and the blue October sky sprawled above the trees.
"Well, then. Have it your way," Narcissa whispers. "We could have been friends, though. And I don't think you've ever had many friends. We could have told each other stories." She glances back towards the rear of the Oldsmobile, thinks about her heavy suitcases in the trunk, a cardboard box with her books, another, larger satchel with her knives and scalpels, her tools, but all those things can wait until later. There will be plenty of time to unpack later, and she walks slowly across the weedy, leaf-littered front yard to the door.
* * *
Narcissa's life like someone else's fever dreams locked up inside her head
and wanting out, or something scribbled down by a crazy woman for her to
have to live through, red-brown words stolen from her mother's diary; all
her days chasing delirium's legacy, measuring the ever-narrowing space between
nightmares and visions, and she cannot even remember a time before this
was the way she saw her life. No guiltless beginning, no damning moment
when childhood's hollow innocence melted into disillusionment and all the
casual atrocities of her twenty-seven years.
Her birth on the last freezing night at the end of a long year of horrors — earthquakes in Burma, volcanic eruptions in Hawaii, a subway wreck in London that killed forty-one people, the fiery crash of a Vietnamese cargo jet carrying two hundred and forty-three orphans. And all of these things written down in her mother's diary, all of these and a thousand more, a pregnant woman's book of splintered days, and then her mother died in childbirth, before she saw Narcissa's face, before she even heard her child draw its first breath and cry. One life lost, one life gained, tit for tat, and the only daughter of Caroline Snow was raised by her grandfather, Aldous, in his tall and crumbling house by the sea. He read to her from his strange books, reading by beeswax candles and oil lamps because the electricity had been shut off long ago, and she walked with him along the rocky Massachusetts beach below the house.
"The sea is the mother of the world," he told her. "The sea is Mother Hydra and one day soon she'll rise again and swallow her ungrateful children."
"Will she swallow me, too?" Narcissa asked and the old man nodded his bald head.
"She will, child. She'll have us all."
May 20th — The demons have stopped coming to my windows. They know what has happened to me. They can smell the life growing inside me. Sometimes, when I have only the sound of the waves for company, I miss their faces pressed against the glass. Last week a woman in Maine was convicted of drowning her six-year-old son while he was bathing. She simply held him under the water. I wonder if he opened his eyes and watched her? I thought about taking a coat hanger from my closet and ending this, but I haven't got the courage. I'm not ready to die.
ocean black and green, always-wheeling gulls, the ragged granite and salt-marsh
wastes at the mouth of the Manuxet River, and Narcissa did not go to school
or play with other children. Nothing for her beyond the house and its jealous
secrets, the seashore and the Atlantic horizon running on forever. Everything
she needed to know old Aldous taught her — how to read and write, astrology,
the rhythms of the tides, history, the cruelty of this life and the ones
to come, the red, wet mysteries beneath concealing skins.
When she was six years old, Narcissa killed a stray dog with a piece of driftwood, beat it slowly to death and then dragged the sandy, flea-seething carcass back up the hill to her grandfather's house. She cut it open with a kitchen knife and the old man watched, neither approving nor disapproving. A wooden mallet and cold chisel to break its sternum, her small, bare hands to pry open the bone and cartilage cradle of its ribcage. Then she spread the dog out around her, like the pictures in his books, naming organs for the old man as she cut them free and laid them on the porch. "This is the heart," she said, naming valves and ventricles, and "This is a kidney. Here's the other one." She ate an eye because it looked like the hard candy he sometimes brought her from his rare trips into Ipswich. After that, she killed gulls and wild geese, rats, a fat raccoon, whatever she found that couldn't get away.
When Narcissa was eight she discovered her mother's diary, hidden in a small hole in the wall behind the headboard of the bed where she'd been born and Caroline Snow had died, and it became her bible. She kept it secret from Aldous, though she'd never kept anything from him before; something told her this book, the yellowing pages in her mother's perfect cursive hand, was hers and hers alone. The book was bound in red leather, with a strip of fine gold cloth to mark the pages. It was only half filled, the last entry made three days before Narcissa's birth. The first page dated April 29th, and "I will put it all down, whatever seems important, everything I can remember," Caroline had written in ink the color of dried blood.
Narcissa kept the diary in the hole behind the head-board. It was safe there, she reasoned, because her grandfa-ther wouldn't come into this room. Some nights he even poured a double line of salt in front of the threshold, if he didn't like the look of the moon and stars, and he'd written things that Narcissa couldn't read on the door. Charms to keep something he feared in or out, but nothing to stop her.
June 27th — Lights in the skies above Tennessee yesterday. A school bus hit by a train outside Sacramento, thirteen dead. Father doesn't like me reading the newspaper but he keeps bringing it to me anyway. I'm starting to show.
When Narcissa was nine a shower of blood fell on the house for two hours
straight, thick red rain against the gambrel roof like bacon frying in a
skillet and her grandfather watched the storm from his seat by the parlor
"Is this your doing, child?" he asked Narcissa without taking his eyes off the window.
"No sir," she said and crossed the room to stand beside him.
"Are you sure?"
"Maybe it's Mother Hydra," Narcissa said and she wasn't surprised by the fear in his eyes or the small tingle of satisfaction it made her feel, deep inside. "Maybe she's coming back."
"You still remember that damn story?" he asked and his dry voice trembled.
"I remember everything you tell me, grandfather."
"Well, that was just a tale I made up to keep you away from the sea. It's greedy and little girls who aren't afraid of it might wind up drowned."
"I think you were telling me the truth," she said.
"You believe whatever you want. I don't give a damn no more."
And he sat in his chair and she stood at his side until the blood stopped falling from the sky.
August 14th — Last night a motel in Cincinnati burned. 35 people died. A man in Los Angeles shot his wife and two daughters and then hung himself. One of the daughters will live. Father is spending more time in the cellar. He doesn't think that I notice. He doesn't think I know about the tunnels.
On her tenth
birthday, Narcissa's grandfather gave her one of his books, one of the
antique volumes that he kept locked inside the walnut barrister cases in
his study and the keys always hidden somewhere she was never able to find.
He wrapped it in an old newspaper, tied it up neat with twine, and made
a bow from a scrap of china-blue silk they'd found on the beach the week
before. He left the package lying out-side her moth-er's bedroom door, where
Narcissa had started sleeping months and months before, and she unwrapped
the gift sitting on the edge of the dead woman's bed. The title and author
were stamped in gold letters across the brittle, black cover — Cultes
des Goules by Francois Honore-Balfour, Comte d’Erlette. There were pictures,
terrible, wondrous pictures that she stared at for hours on end, and the
book became her most prized possession, even if she couldn't read the French.
She thought the bow was pretty and kept it in the hole in the wall with
her mother's diary.
She kept other things in the hole: coins and seashells she'd found among the dunes, a shark's tooth, a black and shriveled mermaid's purse, pretty shards of blue and green beach glass. An arrowhead. A string of purple plastic beads.
"Have you read the book yet?" her grandfather asked one day when they were walking along the beach together. She'd just found half a sand dollar and was busy wiping it clean on the hem of her dress.
"You know very well that I haven't," she replied. "You know I can't read French."
He stared at her silently for a moment, as if that had never occurred to him, and then Aldous Snow glanced longingly back towards his tall house, grown small in the distance.
"We should start back," he said and rubbed at his chin. "The tide will be coming in soon."
"Do you want me to read it?" Narcissa asked him.
"You're stronger than your mother ever was. I never would have given her a book like that."
"Do you want me to read it, Grandfather?"
"It's your book now. Read it if you want. I should have burned that goddamned thing years ago and dumped the ashes into the sea."
"Then why didn't you?"
But he didn't answer her, turned around instead and started walking back up the beach towards the house alone. Narcissa stood watching him, listening to the cold wind, the waves, and in a little while she slipped the broken sand dollar into her coat pocket and followed him home.
* * *
The shiny, new silver key the realtor gave Narcissa opens the front door
and she eases it shut again before reaching for the light switch on the
wall. The foyer’s much darker than it should be, plenty of sunlight from
the big living room to her left, but it seems diffused, stretched thin,
drained of the simple strength to keep the shadows at bay. The electric
light doesn't work much better, and Narcissa turns the new dead bolt on
the door, the dead bolt and the safety chain. Not that such flimsy things
would ever keep anyone out, not anyone who really wanted in, but they might
buy her time. Locks have bought her time before.
The air in the old house smells sweet and sickly, fresh paint and a fainter undercurrent of mildew, a smell of age and neglect that the workmen couldn't scrub away or cover over. There's a closed door leading off the foyer and Narcissa reaches for the brass knob, cold metal in her hand, and opens the door to the bedroom where a young woman once hung herself, where that same young woman's mother died of cancer years before. These aren't things that the realtor would have ever told her, things she would have probably denied had Narcissa asked, but she knows how to find what she's looking for on her own. Bruised places, houses with enough misfortune in their past that she can trust them to keep her secrets.
The bedroom is empty, just like the living room, no furniture and nothing on the stark, white walls. The newly-refinished hardwood floor glints wetly in tiger stripes of sunlight getting in through the plastic slats of brand new Levolor blinds covering the big windows. A chintzy ceiling fan, the closet door standing wide open and it's very dark in there. The faint mildew smell from the foyer is stronger in here.
Narcissa shuts the door and thinks briefly about closing the blinds, too, wiping that ugly chiaroscuro pattern from the floor. But the voices haven't found her yet and she doesn't want to encourage them; they'll track her down soon enough — they always do — and right now she needs to think, needs her head clear to consider the work and the days ahead. She sits down on the floor and undoes the straps and buckles on the leather satchel, folds it open and removes a thick sheaf of papers and spreads them out in front of her. There's also a new box of thumb-tacks in the satchel and she takes that out, as well.
"'Poor fragments of a broken world,'" she whispers and smiles vacantly, stray line from an old poem she memorized as a little girl, words meant to console herself, but they never do, never any consolation anywhere except the grim, violent work and already last night seems like something from months and months ago. The skinny, tattooed kid with the skateboard that she picked up in a park just after sundown, the one who told her his name was Soda. Narcissa closes her eyes tight, remembering his fear, the musky taste of him, the way his lips kept moving long after she'd slashed his throat. Thin, pale lips to shape a silent prayer or curse or plea for mercy.
Shit, maybe the stupid motherfucker was just pissed at me for killing him.
She opens her eyes, takes a deep breath, and slips her pistol from its shoulder holster hidden beneath her jacket, checks the clip, the safety, and then sets it down beside the satchel. There's a red Sharpie pen in her jacket and she takes that out, too.
Narcissa selects a dog-eared, photocopied map from the careless scatter of papers on the floor, Birmingham with its roads laid out neat as a game of tic-tac-toe, the grid of streets running northwest and southeast, avenues running northeast and southwest, but everything getting warped and tangled when it reaches the foot of Red Mountain, ancient topography to foil the contrivances of men and their machines. She pulls the cap off the Sharpie and draws a very small red circle around the spot where she killed the boy named Soda. A circle at one apex of the nearly perfect diamond she plotted on the map the day before, sitting in a Southside diner drinking bitter black coffee and chain-smoking, waiting for the sun to set, reworking her plans again and again in her head.
"That's one," she says, because the first two Birmingham kills don't count, not really, only rehearsals, and she uses the Sharpie to carefully trace over the line leading from the circle she's drawn to another corner of the diamond. "One for sorrow," and Narcissa snaps the cap back on the pen.
"Two for mirth."
Outside, a sudden breeze rattles all the bright, dry leaves that haven't fallen to the ground yet, this slow Southern autumn so strange to her, and Narcissa turns her head and watches the restless limb and branch shadows.
Only the wind. Nothing out there but the wind.
"Three for a wedding," she says, speaking low just in case the voices have slipped in on the breeze and are listening. If walls have ears, if plaster and lathe and paint could talk, and the wind subsides as suddenly as it began.
Narcissa opens the box of thumbtacks and uses one to pin the map to the closest of the white bedroom walls. Then she sits cross-legged on the floor and gazes out the windows at the trees, the red-gold-brown leaves, the shifting swatches of blue sky, and "Four for a birth," she whispers. All the long months since she left Providence, all the roads and cities and empty rooms leading her here, all those other circles she's drawn on other maps pinned to other walls. How many sides, if she were to add them up, how many dimensions necessary to accommodate that polygon? Geometry of blood and time, pain and misdirection, but this is where it ends, where it all begins itself over and Madam Terpsichore and her Benefit Street lapdogs will never laugh at her again.
There's a bird on the windowsill watching her intently with its beady, black eyes, a big gray mockingbird staring in though the blinds like she has no business being here. Narcissa picks up her gun and aims it at the bird, but it doesn't fly away. So many spies to take so many forms that no one could ever keep count and so it's always better to be safe than sorry.
Someone will hear, a voice mumbles from the open closet, voice like someone talking with his mouth full and it's a wonder she can understand a word he says. Someone will hear the shot and call the police.
"I'll say it was an accident. I was cleaning the gun and it went off."
You think they won't ask to see a permit? And what if they run the plates on the car? What if they look in the trunk?
The mockingbird cocks its head to one side and she knows damn well that birds can't fucking smile, but maybe this one's smiling at her anyway. And all she has to do is pull the trigger and there won't be anything left of it but a sticky spray of blood and bone and feathers that will never go peeping in windows at anyone again.
"It's just a lousy bird," Narcissa says, because whether she believes it or not the words feel good to say, and the mockingbird bobs its head and hops a few inches along the sill, taps once at the glass with its beak. "I'm not blowing out that window pane over a goddamn, stupid bird."
Remember the crows in Philadelphia? a woman's voice asks her from the closet. Remember that black dog outside Richmond? What were they, Narcissa?
"Shut up," she says and the mockingbird taps at the window again, harder than before. In Philadelphia, crows had watched her for days, dozens of them following her through the city, perched on sagging power lines or watching her from the lawn of Logan Circle, always there when she looked for them. She'd killed the black dog and left it hanging from a highway sign.
They know your every move, Narcissa, the woman's voice says. Every breath, every step, every time you take a shit, they're watching you. They can take you anytime they want.
"Then why the hell haven't they?"
Soon now, the woman whispers. Soon they will.
The smiling mockingbird taps at the glass and Narcissa fixes it in the pistol's sights. Fuck the window pane, fuck the noise. No one's going to hear it and even if they do, who's going to give a shit? No one ever wants to get involved and if they do, so what? It's not as though she hasn't dealt with cops before. Cops are easy. Cops are a fucking walk in the park.
The wind rattles the leaves.
"Say bye-bye, you nosy little shit," and she pulls the trigger, but there's only the sharp, metallic thunk of the Colt jamming. The bird taps on the glass one last time, taunting her, and then it spreads its wings and flies off in a blur of gray-white feathers.
"Shit!" Narcissa growls and hurls the pistol at the window. It tears through a couple of the plastic Levolor slats and disappears from view; the sound of glass breaking is very loud in the empty room.
Behind her, one of the voices from the closet begins to giggle hysterically to itself and she gets up and slams the door, then opens it just for the pleasure of slamming it again.
You're so close, Narcissa, a voice that almost sounds like her dead grandfather says. So goddamn close now. You gonna throw it all away over a bird? That wasn't a spy. Keep your head, girl.
"Why don't you leave me alone? Why don't all of you please just leave me the hell alone? Let me finish this."
You wanted our lives, and this voice could be the hitchhiker from Atlanta, or the waitress from Myrtle Beach, or someone that she's forgotten altogether. Narcissa knows it doesn't matter anyway, one ghost as good as the next, all of them buried deep in the soft convolutions of her brain to drive her insane before she can finish, all of them spies. You wanted our lives and now you have them. You took us inside you, digested us, made us a part of you, and you'll never be rid of us.
"Yeah, I know," Narcissa says and she nods her head and stares at the white closet door; all the voices have fallen quiet now, and in a few minutes she goes outside to find the gun.
* * *
From the first night that she read her mother's diary, first night that she held it in her hands, Narcissa knew there were missing pages. Ragged bits of paper left behind to show where they'd been torn out, whole days skipped, entries that ended or began in mid-sentence. All these evidences to prove the point, but easy enough to imagine that Caroline Snow had written things she'd come to regret. That she'd ripped those pages out herself and for years the only thought that Narcissa ever gave the matter was to wonder what confidences had been lost to her, what might have been said on those missing pages.
October 9th — I'm beginning to understand it now. But I can only say these things in fragments. The whole is too terrible. Father has started bringing me the paper again, but he always slides it under my door and won't ever look me in the face or answer my questions. I think he's seen the whole, seen it all at once, and now it's driving him insane. Yesterday, in Glen Savage, Penn. three people watched a "black monster" floating above a field. In Montevideo, MN a woman named Helena Myers cut her own —
— almost three days. I sit at the top of the stairs when he doesn't know I'm watching him. I can never see who he's talking to. I think about leaving this house all the time now. Maybe I could get away. Maybe I could save my baby. I could go to Boston, anywhere but here. I don't think he would even try to stop me. I almost think he would be relieved to see me go.
Sometimes Narcissa made up stories to fill in the gaps. She'd peeled off
strips of wallpaper and pulled up loose floorboards looking for places where
her mother might have hidden the missing pages, but she never found anything
except silverfish and dust and spiders.
When she was twelve, she awoke one muggy July night to find Aldous standing over her. His cloudy, yellow eyes glowed softly in the darkness. He held something clutched in his right hand that reflected the scraps of moonlight leaking through the rotting drapes.
"Grandfather," she said and he sighed then, a drawn out, ragged sound as if he'd been holding his breath for a long time, suffocating, waiting for permission to breathe again. "Is something wrong?"
"I thought they would come for you," he said, something in his voice that could have been either disappointment or anger, a little of both, maybe. "I've kept you for them, and taught you things, because I thought they would want you. They never wanted me or your mother, but I thought they would want you."
"Who, grandfather? Who did you think would want me?" and she spoke calmly and kept her eyes on the silvery thing glinting cold moonlight in his hand, the same knife she'd used years ago on the beach dog, the knife she'd used on so many other things since. The carving knife from her bureau drawer.
"I gave you the book . . . a year ago. But you still haven't read it."
"I still can't read French."
And then he slapped her so hard that Narcissa's mouth filled with blood and her ears rang. His ragged, thick nails tore a deep gash in her right cheek and she scrambled to the far edge of the bed, just barely out of reach, ready to run if that what she was going to have to do.
"You fucking cunt," he growled, rabid dog growl from his old throat and his eyes flashed in the dark. "Don't you ever talk to me that way again. You hear me?"
"I hear you, grandfather," Narcissa replied quietly, a salty-warm trick-le of blood leaking from her mouth, her voice still as perfectly calm as it had been before he struck her.
"We are damned, Narcissa."
And then he leaned across the bed, moving faster than she would have ever thought he could, and held the blade of the knife against her throat. He smelled like sweat and aftershave and the faintest hint of rot on his breath.
"If I truly loved you, I'd kill you now and get it over with. I'd save you from the shit you're going to have to try to live through. I'd be doing us both a favor. Yes, little girl, I'd being doing everyone a favor."
"Why are we damned?" Narcissa asked. She thought briefly about the ice pick she kept hidden underneath her pillow. "What does that mean, grandfather?"
"I'm not your damned grandfather," Aldous said and took the knife away from Narcissa's throat. Her skin stung slightly and later she'd find a shallow cut just beneath her chin. "Don't you ever call me that again, because it isn't true and I'm sick of lies."
"Why are we damned?" she asked again.
"Read the book, Narcissa. That bitch-cur, my mother," and he laughed then and turned to stare at the window. "We're mongrels, child, and we can never be anything else."
He stood there for a while, silently watching the sea through her drapes, watching the summer night, and she didn't ask him anything else. She slipped her hand beneath the pillow and gripped the wooden handle of the ice pick tightly, but he left a few minutes later, without saying another word, without even looking at her again, left the carving knife lying on the bureau and shut the door behind him. Aldous Snow would only enter her bedroom one more time in his life.
October 30th — There are terrible noises from the cellar tonight and I'm too afraid to go see. I'm afraid all the time. I don't want to know anymore. I don't want to know any of it. This afternoon I watched my father standing at the edge of the sea and talking to the sky. I think he was arguing with the sky. I was all the way back at the old boathouse and couldn't hear what he was saying, but he did it for over an hour. And I think he's started keeping animals in the cellar. I can smell them if I stand at the cellar door. I can hear them moving around.
The day after Aldous held a knife to her throat, Narcissa walked and hitchhiked
into Ipswich. She didn't tell him that she was going, not because she thought
he would try to stop her, but because she didn't care whether he knew or
not. She was starting to think that he couldn't hurt her, that if
he could, he would have done it already. She crossed the dunes behind the
house, then followed the Argilla Road until a man in a green pick-up truck
stopped for her.
"Where you bound?" and she told him Ipswich.
"But you ain't no runaway?" he asked suspiciously and Narcissa shook her head no, told him the story she'd made up that morning about her sick grandfather and how their car had broken down a week ago, how she had to pick up his heart medicine from the drugstore in Ipswich. Narcissa had never ridden in a car and the thought of gliding along so effortlessly on those black rubber tires made her a little dizzy.
"Well, I guess you better get in then."
The man didn't say much on the drive into town, glanced at her in his rearview mirror from time to time, hesitant, nervous glances, but just before he let her out on Market Street, "You ain't by any chance any relation to old man Snow?" he asked.
"Yes sir," Narcissa said politely. "He's my grandfather. How'd you know that?"
"You just got that look about you," the man said and shrugged, not looking at Narcissa, pretending to watch a woman pushing a baby carriage along the sidewalk. "You got the old man's eyes."
"Thank you for the ride," she said and got out of the truck.
"Anytime," the man said. "Hope your granddad's feeling better soon," and then he drove away. Narcissa walked past the drugstore to a smaller shop that sold books and magazines and bought a paperback French-English dictionary with five dollars she'd taken from one of the snuff tins Aldous kept his money in. On the way back, no one stopped to pick her up and it was almost dark by the time she got home.
* * *
After she found the Colt where it had landed beneath a crape myrtle bush
and unpacked the car — four trips from the porch to the Olds and back again,
four trips across the dandelion- and pecan-cluttered yard and all her boxes
and bags finally safe inside the house — Narcissa fell asleep near the broken
bedroom window. No sleep for almost forty-eight hours and the sunlight,
the clean, afternoon-warmed air through the broken window, almost as good
as the tiny violet Halcion tablets she takes when the voices won't let her
sleep. She promised herself that she was only going to close her eyes, only
for a moment, a ten-minute nap at the most, and she lay down with a stolen
motel pillow beneath her head and the gun within easy reach.
"Rise and shine, girl," her grandfather growls at her from some fading dream place; in an instant Narcissa is wide awake, adrenaline sharp and her heart pounding loud as thunder. The long shadows and half-light filling the white room, so she knows she's slept for hours, not minutes. The day almost gone and she closes her hand around the butt of the pistol, its comforting, undeniable weight, and listens for whatever it is that woke her — not her grandfather or his ghost, something flesh and blood, something that can hurt and die.
But there's only the brittle rustle of the wind playing with leaves, two squirrels chattering angrily at each other somewhere nearby, the distant, steady sound of traffic. Down the street a woman calls out.
"Taylor! It's getting dark! Time to come in!"
Narcissa takes a very deep breath and holds it, waiting impatiently as her heart begins to return to normal, as her body quickly burns away the adrenaline clogging her bloodstream.
"Five more minutes. It's not even dark yet."
"Now, young man!"
Narcissa exhales and sits up, slides across the floor until her back is pressed firmly against the wall and then she steals a glance out the window at the porch and the yard cut up into neat twilight slices by the blinds. Nothing that shouldn't be there. The sleek, black car almost lost in the gloom. The untrimmed shrubbery lining the driveway. One of the noisy squirrels races itself from the trunk of one tree to another.
"It was nothing," she whispers. "It was nothing at all," and she turns to face the almost-empty room again, three closed doors, the map thumbtacked to the wall, her papers scattered on the floor.
And from somewhere in the house, the creak of a floorboard to contradict her.
"Old houses make all sorts of sounds," one of her voices whispers reassuringly from a corner. "You know that."
Narcissa raises the Colt and rests barrel flat against her left cheek, straining her ears to see if the voice is right or wrong. She flips the safety off with her thumb and takes another deep breath.
Old houses make all sorts of sounds . . .
From the north side of the house, the living room or perhaps the kitchen, somewhere off to her left, there's another, louder creak and then a third immediately after that. She stands up very slowly, keeping the wall at her back, silently cursing herself for having fallen asleep.
"You can't expect to stay awake forever," the voice in the corner sighs.
"But she's getting careless," another voice whispers. "These fuckers, you screw up just once and you're history. Just once, and you're toast."
Narcissa takes one cautious step towards the door leading to the foyer and the floor squeaks softly beneath her bare feet.
"If you can hear them, you better bet they can hear you," one of the voices chuckles and Narcissa stops and aims the pistol at the corner the voice came from.
"They're trying to distract you, Narcissa," her grandfather grumbles from behind the closet door. "They still think it'll save them, if you get yourself killed."
The sudden flutter of wings then, a hundred wings hammering the air somewhere above the house, ink-black feathers battering the October dusk, and she fires two shots through the bedroom ceiling.
"You should have killed that damned bird when you had the chance," her grandfather says.
Sheetrock dust like powdered sugar settles to the polished floor from the fist-sized hole in the ceiling, hangs suspended in the air, drifting lazily through the last rays of the setting sun. The birds are already far away, high above the city, crying her name to anyone who will listen. And now there's a new sound coming from the other side of the door, something animal pacing back and forth out there, its steel claws click-click-clicking against the wood, its breath the endless rise and fall of ocean waves against granite boulders.
"You can run," one of the corner voices sneers. "But you know they can run faster."
"I'm tired of running," she says and never mind if the thing on the other side of the door can hear her; after the birds, she can't imagine it matters much whether she's quiet or not. "I'm sick to fucking death of running. I'm going to find what I fucking came here to find and then I'll never have to run again."
"Open the door, half-breed," the thing in the foyer snarls and she can smell it now, decay and red, raw meat, ashes and gasoline.
"You're such a disappointment," Aldous Snow mumbles from his closet. "My only daughter died for you."
"Not your only daughter, you twisted old fuck," one of the corners reminds him. "Now shut up and go back to sleep."
"Make it easy on yourself," the thing behind the door says. "Save us the trouble. You might as well. This story ends exactly the same, either way."
And Narcissa looks down and sees the thick, red-black liquid leaking into the room from beneath the door, viscous soup of shit and blood and rot, bile and half-digested hair, and backs away as it spreads itself out across the bedroom floor. She raises the pistol and fires three times at the door, and the shots are as loud as the world cracking itself apart at the end of time.
"Wake up, girl," her grandfather says.
The vision ended. I awoke
As out of sleep, and no
Voice moved —
"There's someone here to see you."
Narcissa opens her eyes, the dream spitting her back into herself, back into the sunny-bright afternoon room, sweat-soaked and gasping for air like a drowning woman. She lies still for a moment, staring up at the bedroom ceiling, waiting for her heart to stop pounding. Waiting to be absolutely sure it isn't all a trick, some magic far too subtle for her to have ever learned; but no monsters have followed her back here, no black-bird spies, and in a few more minutes she rolls over and hides her face in the stolen pillow, crying as quietly as she can so the voices won't hear.
* * *
As her twelfth summer dissolved into a bleak and drizzly twelfth autumn,
Narcissa sat alone in her room in the tall house by the sea. Day after night
after day, alone with Cultes des Goules and her paperback French-English
dictionary, impatiently struggling to tease some sense from the book's
crumbling, yellow-brown pages and archaic grammar, fragments of sentences
adding up to no more than fragments of meaning. Slowly transcribing Honore-Balfour's
text onto stationary that she'd stolen from a drawer in her grandfather's
study, writing paper that had once belonged to MR. ISCARIOT HOWARD Q. SNOW,
ESQ., and she was pretty sure that must have been her great-grandfather's
name. The relic and her cipher and little time left over for anything else,
pausing only for the bland meals Aldous left outside her door twice a day
and as little sleep as she could get by on. This blind urgency something
new to Narcissa, like passé simple and the baffling French
conjugations, this small voice in her head that whispered incessantly, hurry,
there's not much time left, hurry.
Dépêchez-vous . . .
The revelations given up to her in stingy, oblique bits and pieces, murky enlight-enments, and by early October she was finally finished, or at least as finished as she ever thought she would be. Several pages of the book had been written in languages other than French, and those would remain closed to her for many more years. But she'd gleaned enough to begin to understand, at last, the things her mother's diary had only hinted, her grandfather's fear and anger, her own golden eyes — that there was a world behind and beneath the world she knew, as hidden from the minds of men as the bottomless, black depths of Mother Hydra's drowning oceans. Hidden, but there were intersections, thin places where the one sometimes met the other, and there were the children of these meetings, the forsaken creatures the Comte d’Erlette had simply called les métis.
"Do you see now?" her grandfather asked, watching from the safety of the bedroom doorway, his face become a skeleton mask by the light of his kerosene lantern. When she didn't answer him, he asked again, "Do you see, Narcissa?"
Narcissa didn't bother to look up from the stationary pages crowded with her sloppy handwriting, pages of pencil and fountain pen scrawl, pretending to read the words she'd written there.
"Leave me alone. Close the door and leave me alone," she said.
"I wouldn't have given you that book, but I still thought they would take you away. I shouldn't have—"
"Are you going deaf, Aldous?"
"It was old Iscariot. He started all of this. It wasn't me—"
"Do you really think that matters, who started it?"
"It isn't my fault," he mumbled ruefully, staring down at the floor, at the threshold of his lost Caroline's bedroom, his eyes grown wet and distant. "I'm the same as you, Narcissa."
"No, old man," she snarled, baring her sharp white teeth for him. "Whatever you are, you're not the same as me. You'll never be anything like me," and she got up and crossed the room, slammed the door in his face and then stood there listening to the sound of his slippers shuffling slowly down the long corridor towards his own bedroom door.
"Nothing like me, you lying bastard," she whispered, her lips pressed hard against the door, driving her voice through the wood like nails. "Nothing like me at all."
November 18th — They all left the cellar last night and danced around a big bonfire father built in the dunes behind the house. He spent the whole day gathering enough driftwood. I sat on the porch, bundled up in my coat and gloves and read the newspaper while he walked up and down the beach talking to himself. The things I read in the paper seem less and less important. I thought they were the key, but maybe they're something else altogether. Maybe they're only a distraction. Small evils, small cataclysms. It's all a game and there's no time left for me to learn the rules. They howl all night long from the dunes and my baby kicks in my belly as if it wants to join them and run beneath the moon. Be patient, dear. Your damnation will find you soon enough.
On the morning of Narcissa's thirteenth birthday she began to bleed, crimson
stains like rose petals tattooed onto her sheets, her thighs, and that
afternoon two upstairs windows and a porcelain figurine in the parlor shattered.
She'd always hated the figurine, two Irish setters and one of them with
a dead pheasant gripped in its jaws. I think Aldous is afraid of me now,
she wrote on one of the blank pages in her mother's diary. Lying on
her bedroom floor that night as one year died and another was born, corpse
of 1987 traded for 1988, and He doesn't want me here, she wrote.
He's never wanted me here. I'm something he wants to forget.
Aldous swept up the pieces of the Irish setters, but ignored both the broken windows, and the fierce Atlantic gales blew snow into the house that gathered in small drifts upon the stairs.
December 3rd — My daughter came to me last night. She told me not be afraid anymore, that it's almost over now. She was beautiful and wore a necklace of small blue flowers, seashells and fish bones bleached white by the sun. She kissed my cheek and I was a gull soaring high above this awful place. I could see the marshes and the Manuxet shimmering silver beneath the full moon, the glittering lights of Ipswich and the beacon at Cape Anne. I turned towards the ocean and she said, "No, mother, don't look at it." I shut my eyes and was back in my bed again. My daughter leaned close and whispered in my ear, so that father wouldn't hear. She had her father's eyes.
And three nights after the new year, Narcissa awoke with Aldous standing
there beside her bed again. This time he was naked, his pale and wrinkled
flesh draped loose on spindle bones, worn-out old man with tears rolling
down his sunken cheeks. He had the carving knife, though she'd hidden it
under a loose floorboard after his last visit.
"I know what you've been thinking, girl," he said. "Every dirty little thought. Every lie—"
"Go back to bed, grandfather," she said, keeping her eyes on the carving knife. "I need to sleep."
"I told you not to call me that ever again."
"Then what would you have me call you instead?"
His head bobbed up and down and then slumped forward so his chin rested against his chest. His eyes flashed iridescent gold and red and orange in the dark.
"Go the fuck back to bed, Aldous," she said, trying to sound groggy, slipping her hand beneath her pillow.
"There's a yellow house in Providence," he said, "a house on Benefit Street full of monsters. There are entire cities built from the bones of the dead."
"You've been having bad dreams again," Narcissa said.
"My father . . . he walked streets paved with human bones. They took him to Providence and showed him the roads winding down to the very bottom of the universe. They showed him every goddamn thing he ever asked to see."
The old man stopped talking then, nodded, and stared silent-ly for a moment at the knife clutched in his left hand as if he'd forgotten it was there.
"I saw him last night, Narcissa, watching me from the beach. I nailed the cellar door shut, but there he was on the beach."
"You saw your father?"
"He said that I had to finish this. He said there wasn't any other way. They aren't ever coming for you."
"Are you sure, Aldous? Are you absolutely certain this is what you want?"
"I'm so sorry, child," he said and raised the carving knife high above his head.
And Narcissa plunged the ice pick deep into his skinny chest, burying it all the way to the handle, piercing his heart, and the knife fell from his fingers and clattered loudly to the floor. Aldous stumbled backwards, crashed into her dressing table and collapsed. So much simpler than she'd ever dared to imagine, and Narcissa sat on the edge of the bed, amazed, listening as his breath grew shallow and uneven, hearing all the sounds an old man makes dying. His eyes were open, straining towards the sagging, water-stained ceiling or the night sky, the cold and treacherous stars he would never have to see again.
When it was almost over, Narcissa went to him, crouched on the floor and wiped the tears from his cheeks with the hem of her flannel nightgown.
"Thank you," he whispered, his voice wheezing raggedly out between blood-flecked dentures.
"No. Don't try to talk," she said and outside, somewhere among the dunes, something began to howl, a long, low, mournful sound, more human than animal. Aldous Snow's chest rose one last time, shuddered, and was still. Narcissa glanced over her shoulder at the bedroom window, then closed his eyes and stayed with him until the thing in the dunes stopped howling and there was only the wail of the January wind around the eaves of the house.
She dressed, then packed her clothes — everything she wasn't wearing — into
a big canvas suitcase that she'd found in the very back of her mother's closet:
her clothes and Cultes des Goules, Caroline's
diary, the French-English dictionary and all the pages of her transcription.
She pulled the ice pick from Aldous' chest and covered his body with the
sheets and blankets from her bed, impromptu shroud because it didn't seem
right to leave him lying there naked on the bedroom floor. Narcissa packed
the ice pick and the carving knife in the suitcase, as well, and went downstairs,
taking the steps one at a time, careful not to slip on the tiny drifts of
snow that had accumulated beneath the shattered windows.
She opened both the front doors, letting in the storm, left the suitcase sitting on the snow-covered porch, and walked quickly through the silent, empty house, truly alone now for the first time in her life and only the echo of her own footsteps for company. The door to the old man's study wasn't locked, wasn't even shut, and she used a heavy brass paperweight shaped like sleeping lion to smash the glass fronts of the walnut barrister cases. Narcissa lit the lamp from his desk, then took her time searching the spines and covers of all the books until she found the ones she was looking for, the ones that she knew would be there somewhere, rare and terrible volumes that Francois Honore-Balfour had mentioned or quoted. She packed them carefully into an empty cardboard box and carried it and the kerosene lamp back through the entryway to the place on the porch where she'd left her suitcase.
"Good-bye, old man," she said, wanting to sound brave but her voice seeming very small and insignificant, a child's voice lost inside the rambling, dark house looming up around her like the tomb it had always been. She hurled the lamp into the gloom and it burst against a wall, spilling fire, and the flames spread quickly to the floor and up the stairs, a roaring, burning creature devouring everything it touched.
I could stay, she thought. I could stay and burn, too, and she imagined her charred skeleton jumbled among the timbers and blackened masonry, her bones abandoned to the weather and time and before long there'd be nothing left of her at all. Nothing to hurt, nothing to be afraid of what was coming next, nothing to hope that the world could ever be any different than it was.
Go, Narcissa, Aldous growled angrily from the whirling, red-orange heart of the fire. Go now, while there's still time, and she turned and left the house, gathered her things and pulled the doors shut behind her. Outside, the storm wrapped her in a million shades of gray and white and black, and the freezing banshee wind hurried her stumbling towards the future.
* * *
Hours after dark and her face staring back at her from the mirror above
the bathroom sink, face of someone who has never had any trouble passing
for human, and Narcissa holds the razor blade between her thumb and index
finger and pretends that she has the courage to cut away the mask and find
the truth secreted beneath her skin. Her yellow eyes the only outward hint,
the windows of the soul, and even they're proof of nothing at all; plenty
enough normal people born with yellow eyes, T. S. Eliot had yellow eyes,
and they only get her stared at every now and then. Her face as pretty as
every runway model's, unlikely Hollywood pretty: the fine, arched line of
her unplucked eyebrows, her thick, blonde hair and full lips, the delicate
bridge of her nose. A monster locked helpless somewhere inside this shell,
chained to this waxwork perfect husk, and sometimes, like now, staring at
that face staring back at her, she wonders if half the things she remembers
ever happened at all. If perhaps there never was a house beside the sea and
Madam Terpsichore and Benefit Street are only a schizophrenic's delusion,
shreds of truth warped inside out by a mind unwilling or incapable of facing
No more or less a monster than any killer.
Only a lunatic lost in the labyrinth of her own dreams, in stray lines from ghost stories she might have read as a child she can't remember ever having been. Only a murderer. Weary of myself, and sick of asking . . .
You're getting sloppy, girl, Aldous Snow mutters at her from the bathtub. Renting a house, shitting where you eat. You're getting sloppy.
"I'm getting close," she replies and sets a corner of the blade against her chin. "He's here, old man. I saw him yesterday. And when I carry his child back, they'll have to take me in."
If they wanted the child that bad they'd come here and take it themselves. They don't need you doing them favors.
A sting when the razor finally draws blood, and Narcissa watches as it gathers on the blade and her pale fingertips and drips into the rust-stained sink.
You don't have the nerve, do you? one of the corner voices taunts. You fucking coward, you fucking phony, why don't you go ahead and see what's waiting under there. It's only meat, isn't that what you always say?
"They'll have to take me," she says again.
Who are you talking to, Narcissa? Who do you think is listening? and she shuts her eyes and the razor makes hardly any sound at all when she lets go and it falls into the blood-spattered sink.
Coming Soon: CRK Talks About Low Red Moon