Sunday, March 28, 2010

UNCOMMON PLACES -- PART TWO

"Welcome to my home, Mr. Barnes. How young you look!"

"At twenty-seven I no longer feel so youthful," I answered.

"And that is too absurd. I have made you a small present." She tilted to a table beside her chair, and as she did so I noticed the weird medallion around her neck that swayed with the movement of her body. I suspected that the necklace was a present from one of her many artistic cronies, and it was certainly imaginative. The focal point of the thing was a vintage camera lens, onto which a metallic winged skull and miniature oval portrait had been mounted. I recalled having seen the skull design on stones in a New England burying ground, below which had been etched the words:
"Remember me as you pass by
As you are now so once was I.
As I am now so you must be.
Prepare for Death and follow me."
Miss Eliot reached with frail old hands and took up her small present, a sweater made of black and yellow candlewick fabric. Holding the garment in both hands, she offered it to me. I thanked her.

"Wear it well," she said in her pleasant gravelly voice.

I reached into my knapsack and produced an early edition of her poems, the sight of which moved her to sigh. "Will you honor me with a signature?" I handed her the book. She hesitated for many moments, then took my proffered pen and opened the volume to its title page.

"I always feel a vague precaution before signing my name. It probably stems from my witch heritage. The signing of one's name can be a potent -- at times a parlous -- thing." Smiling coquettishly, she guided my pen across paper and returned both pen and book to me.

"Yes, I've noticed the recurring witch motif in your work, especially the odd reference to some esoteric witch-cult whose members are interred face downward."

"The better to kiss the devil's buttocks," she laughed, and then she moved in preparation to rise. I stood and offered her my hand, which she clutched with her smooth dry claw. "No, leave your things here and follow me. I'll show you wonders of which you've dreamed. Come." She walked steadily enough, despite her advanced age, and led me to a massive door before which her tall lean servant stood. He had exchanged his taper for a candelabra on which three squat candles flamed, and in their light I could just make out the emblem that rose as scar on his forehead. The design was deliberate, and so I conjectured that the fellow liked to play with razor blade art, as was the fashion with so many youths in the alternative scene of the day. "Titus will guide us below," Miss Eliot confided as the fellow opened the door and began to descent pitted stone steps. We sank into an area that was nothing less than a subterranean art gallery, and the paintings that I eyed made me gasp. I walked to the wall on which the largest picture hanged, and as I admired it I could hear the wizened woman's raspy breathing near me. "What say you, sirrah? Was I not a stunning thing in youth?"

The background was a bent old tree in a cemetery, which I slowly recognized as Copp's Hill Burying Ground in Boston. The madness of the piece lay in the figures in the background, black things that rose like hungry shaggy shadows from the ground, things that in some few instances began to ape human design. One quasi-anthropomorphic thing was very near the woman in the foreground, bending as if preparing to kiss the palm of the woman's outstretched hand. That woman was a very young Delia Eliot --and she was magnificent. Pickman had captured, with perfection, the sorceress beauty of her powerful eyes, eyes that caught me completely in their spell. Her complexion was smooth and fair, and the only color in the painting was her very luxurious red hair. I turned to gaze at the little woman beside me, this shrunken thing that was nothing like her former self -- except for the eyes, those gems that held their violet beauty still. They gazed at me with potent emotion as I took up her hand and kissed its palm.

Candlelight was caught on the necklace that swung above her breasts, and I reached for that amulet and studied the antique camera lens that was its major feature. Her antique voice whispered, "It was from his camera, you know, the one he left behind when he -- went away. Ah, the images that were caught upon it! You can almost see a semblance of them, can't you, moving like blue and verdant shadows just beneath the surface?"

I lifted the round object closer to my eyes and scanned its cloudy surface, noticing that a tiny symbol had been etched onto the glass. It was a symbol that I had seen before. "I had a friend in Salem compose this piece of art. To wear it is to see the world as Richard saw it, in all its secret ghastliness. Oh, what rare souls we are -- we who love the secret things. Forbidden things." I shut my eyes and she wrapped her crooked fingers around the necklace and lifted it from her flesh. Reaching out, my hands touched hers and helped them guide the relic over my head. My brain could not endure the revelations that seared into it. I crumbled to the floor.

XVIII.
Icy shadow cools your boiling brain and gently wakes you.

You rise, in darkness, in an unfamiliar place, among strange scents and obscure memories. One single taper burns some distance from you, and its pale light pulls you like a moth unto it. You crawl across the floor, to the black shape that rests what might be human hand next to the flaming candle in its holder. Taking hold of that candlestick, you rise before the oblong box of pitted granite and gaze at the form within it, the frail old creature who lies face downward. Compelled, you bend to her and smell the essence of her senescent flesh and ancient hair. You move your nostrils to the still, still hand and gently kiss its palm. The thing that sways around your neck taps against the granite crypt. There are echoes in the air.

Waves of sound swim into your brain and vibrate vision. They push you to the canvas on the wall, into which you sink. Primordial wind embraces you as you stand among the black and tilting stones. The moon is pale, like a taper in a secret room. You feel its cool glow upon your fevered eyes. the eyes that watch the form that rises from its oblong granite bed. Beside it, another thing arises, black and formless, held in abeyance by the hand that soothes its hunger. They flow to you, these shadows,one so pale the other black as nightmare. Her tiny hand touches the relic at your breast and she admires herself on the surface of a vintage lens. Glancing down, you see how the moonlight plays upon the tiny symbol that has been etched onto the sphere of glass. You watch her white hand release the relic and rise to touch your eyes. You feel the nail that pricks your forehead and etches thereon the Elder Sign, and you smile as she lowers her hand so that the shadow-thing can lap your blood that stains it. That shaggy shadow rises next to its mistress, the faceless shadow that wears the sign upon the surface where a face should be.

You shut your eyes and lean against the venerable tree as the creatures bend to you, their hungry tongues upon your throat.

* * * * * * * * * * * ** ** * * * * **

Blast! Typing that I found some typos that I don't remember catching when I proofed "Uncommon Places" the final time, in the proof copy of the Centipede Press omnibus. Now I have to hunt for those proof pages I kept (where the hell did I stash them?) and see. I want that book to be as error-free as possible, but a little voice of depression and dispair tells me, "Ha ha! & it's all gonna be your fault!

No comments:

Post a Comment