Author Archives: rahkshasarani

About rahkshasarani

A woman writes horror. Film at 11.

Fungisland Part 2

Entry 5

I have reached the far end of the island. It is far less welcoming than my home encampment, though this may just be due to the melancholy that dogs my steps. I have not yet laid eyes on my neighbors, though I suppose it is inevitable. For now I have been seeking out new varieties of fungi that aren’t present on my half. One slime mold I have named Felicitus atramenti, for its tannin-rich blood provided me with the ink in which I pen these words (my inkwell ran dry despite my thrifty efforts.) That there are animals present on this side of the island should be no surprise, for I have often heard the call of seabirds with no visible source. That they should be in some way burdened with infection should come as even lesser shock. One mighty specimen I have dubbed the webbed albatross, for mycelia coats it so. The bird’s eyes are blind and white, how they navigate I can only guess. I see them kiting higher and higher on air drafts like a hawk, gaining altitude enough that they can fly out to sea. They never make it to the horizon. I was unable to see the means of their extinction until I fashioned a clear jelly-like slime mold and a dry hollow stipe into a spyglass.

Far off shore there is a scattering of shoal, and on that shoal other seabirds nest. Once a webbed albatross crosses their threshold, the birds attack the intruder and send it into the sea. While I am overjoyed to find a potential source of food (the nutritious value of those eggs might well make the perilous journey worthwhile) I am alarmed at the scope of the island’s infection. I had heard of fungi affecting behavior, certainly, but only in already mindless insects. If the spores are strong enough to infect the braid of an avian, how does that bode for greater animals?

I must show more caution in what I eat and drink from now on.

Entry 6

I have found my neighbors. My worries of the fungal spores were too slight, it seems. For they have already found humanity.

I must wonder after the people on this island. What were they, Polynesian, Oceanian, some southern form of Esquimaux? Were they here before the fungi dominated? Alas, they put forth no answer.

The people infected by the fungi are covered with webs of mycelium. Like the birds, their eyes are sightless. They operate by touch, and by some internal compass they navigate the terrain. This place and all that live in it are like the clockwork wonders I saw in Munich as a boy, each piece appearing to operate independently while driven by the same infernal internal engine. I have made a grave miscalculation. I am leaving the far side of the island.

Entry 7

After stopping to gather enough atramenti to fill my inkwell several times over, I am home. In such a short time most of the markers of my presence had been absorbed into the jungle. My trunk remains untouched (thank god) and I yearned for a drop or two of manmade chemicals. I have doubts even a shipful of carbolic acid could clear this jungle, though.

I cannot banish the implications of the far side of the island from my mind. Everything in my home camp that brought me joy is recast in a sinister light. Perhaps it was only appealing to me in the first place because the fungus willed it so. No, Phineas. Down that path lies madness and despair.

Now that I am quit of it, I feel more comfortable describing the far end and its inhabitants. Whereas the “trees” near my base are like that of a small copse, the growth on the far end is outsize, with a canopy that blocks out the sunlight. All molds grow to a greater size in those environs; I found a slime mold that normally grew to six centimeters that I could barely span with both arms wide open. Also present in that jungle are membranes throttling the gaps between fungal trees which serve a purpose unclear to me. They dilate only to let the poor fungi-people pass.

My neighbors…I cannot imagine their passage a painless one, yet they look out at the world with placid faces. I cannot ascribe their facial features to any one ethnic group, and their skin is so powdered with spore-dust that skin tone is impossible to place. Perhaps they are not a native tribe but other castaways like myself, trapped here by the fungus I will not give myself over to idle speculation. I must weather these conditions and then when I have reached my apex, I will bind this journal in oilskins and set it adrift. Even if I do not live on, my knowledge will.

Entry 8

I found a slime mold that tastes like chocolate pudding the other day. While in my early days it might have brought me cheer, I am only sickened now. It was like a port Molly painting herself up in an approximation of your own mother’s face to entice you.

Whether I was always the subject of visits and only noticed now or that the fungus has been made aware of me I see the fungi-people on my side of the island with increasing frequency. They are completely silent, communicating in some nonverbal manner that leaves me out in the cold. No different than normal society, then. Their errands are as murky as their vision. Sometimes I see them move a fruiting mold a few feet, only to move it back a short time later. It is my pet theory that their actions are a cover, and they act only to observe me. I will begin caching the journal in a seaside cave, since the saltwater gives them pause.

Entry 9

It cannot be. Yet it is.

I have found the Bosun’s red cap. The crew are among the fungi-people.

I will begin constructing a raft. I must get off this island.

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Fungisland Part 1

Entry 1

The Molly Haggard has crashed, all hands down to the deep save for me. I, Phineas Elmer Rutland, am alive. More importantly, I am free. FREE. No more petty decrees to gather bird feathers and droppings, no more deckhands roughing up my scientific equipment, no more jabs about my sea-sickness, I AM FREE. I have destroyed the preceding journal pages as a symbol of my emancipation, so let me mark down a summary of how and when this came to be, lest I forget:

It was three days prior; the ship was on glass-calm waters when suddenly we hove to port (or starboard, I can never remember.) The ship was caught in a tumult as if a maelstrom was upon us, yet the sky and surrounding sea remained clear. I admit I remember little of this; the boat pitched and yawed so, I spent most of my time emptying the contents of my stomach overboard. I remember one confused soul screamed the dreaded “iceberg” but knew we were too close to the equator for such a thing to be.

I looked up and feared the man right: there was a large, white specter to the fore of the ship, nearly as tall as the mizzenmast. The crew flew into motion to turn us, all too late, when the looming white thing burst like a pig’s bladder. All that was left was a cloud of white dust and confusion among the men. This turned into chaos as those close to the dust cloud began choking and clawing at their faces. All the while we still churned in place, caught by some unseen menace.

I’ll remember the crack of the ship breaking as long as I live. Men fell into the sea without life-vest or buoy. I ran to grab the chest of my instruments. Thank god I waterproofed it by impregnating the wood with bitumen; the chest made a handy floating device when I fell through the burst hull. All night I could hear the other men calling each other, trying to keep within range. Folly, if you ask me. By lumping together, they probably damned themselves. I could have tried to share my floatation device and probably would have wound up back in the sea. But by excluding myself, I was saved. I was so comfortable I even dozed off, only to awake when the reef of this island jarred my chest.

I’ll admit to some trepidation when I made landfall. I had not grabbed any tack or fresh water, I had no idea the condition of my instruments, and I had a mild case of windburn. But all this melted away when I spotted a small brown protrusion at the end of the beach. I took it for some kind of root runner and tried to follow it back to the source, accidentally striking it with my foot in passing. The “root” sent up a brown cloud, and instantly I knew I was home.

I was not the captain’s first choice to man the ship’s science offices. He wanted to replicate the blasted Beagle’s tour of the tropics, wanted some jack-of-all trades with a chest of coarse hair who no doubt guzzled rum as he took specimens. Specializing in fungi was folly, he said. Well, here I am, whole and hale and surrounded by my area of expertise. Who is the fool, I ask?

Entry 2

It has been some weeks since I washed ashore. My early melancholy was tempered by the discovery of my first fungi, now I miss humanity less than I miss trough water in January. I have named that first specimen Phinea elmeri after myself, more of a sentimental gesture than anything. I have discovered dozens of fungi since then, and every day brings new specimens.

I have made steps to map out the island, though some areas remain impassable for the time being. The island is no coral atoll, as I thought when I first arrived, but a volcanic isle dominated by a cinder cone at the extreme end of the island. It has a source of fresh water, which I have yet to locate due to the nature of the jungle.

Ah, the jungle. If I could wax poetic for a moment, such a marvel has until now existed only in my dreams. What I took for tropical hardwood became the stipe of yet another fungal variety. Yes, my new home had mushrooms larger than anything recorded elsewhere. I must admit to hugging one in my fervor. The stipe gave off a slightly malty smell I found delightful. The “vines” that I’ve seen hanging from the canopy are simply above-ground mycelia, strong enough to be made into rope (a property I’ve used to my advantage in attempting more difficult areas)

I will not be so brash as to say all aspects of fungal life are so joyful. The fish that swim in the freshets are covered with a mold that makes them appear furred. While the mold makes them sluggish and easier to catch, it gives them a most unpleasant taste. I take my risks fishing off the reef, though I find more success prying bivalves from the rocks as the sea life prefers to give the island a healthy berth. I assume the fungi itself is stopped by the barrier of the seawater, hence why you don’t see giant mushrooms anywhere else.

Entry 3

Had some interesting run-ins with the local fungi in the preceding weeks. The first was a batch of what I took for ripe fruit on the sole plant on the island: a bush situated ⅓ the height of a seaside cliff. I thought the height and the surrounding stone gave it separation enough that it would be safe from fungal interference, forgetting of course that spores rise. I plucked the fruit while hanging from a woven mycelia cradle and performed the tests for vetting edibility. I found them not only edible, but quite alluring. After consuming three or so, I found my balance off and my temper uneven. What happened is something I have only been able to surmise after the fact: the ripe fruit were in fact infected by fungi that fermented the juices within the fruit. A benign enough lesson, with a steep cost the next morning (such a headache I have never had.) A regrettable loss, for although I enjoy the flesh of a roasted tree-stipe, I do miss the taste of fresh fruit(to say nothing of the dangers of scurvy.)

I observed a faction of the local fauna who makes use of the fungi as well as I do: a small violet octopus who reached out of the water to grasp a patch of mushrooms that hung over the water. They gave off not spore dust but an inky liquid that hit the water and quickly dissipated. Within moments the nearby shellfish yawned open, leaving a feast for the conniving cephalopod. How it avoids the effects of the liquid itself is a mystery, but one I have all the time in the world to solve.

It was near the seashore that I also found the solution to another mystery. There was a circular formation of globular fungi that abutted the shore. They did not burst but simply swelled larger and larger until the wind unseated them from the ground. I had the good luck to be there on an occasion when one flew out to sea: the bulb hit the seawater and swelled many times its size while remaining buoyant. Here, finally, was the “iceberg” that the crew so desperately fought to avoid. I suppose this is the manner which the fungus attempts to spread, yet it is stymied by the saltwater that hems it in at all quarters. No other island is close enough, I suppose. Then my thoughts turned to the wreck of the Molly Haggard, and whether its flotsam was impregnated with the spores.

….I do not know that I care for the notion.

Entry 4

I have found footprints. Blast! I only wanted for a single year alone in this place before humanity invaded. Why can’t a man be left to his own devices?!

They start at one of the freshets and lead inland. The jungle is impenetrable that way, not even fire will thin their fungal ranks.

I have made up my mind. I will form a canoe from a tree-stipe and go around seaways.

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A Poem of White and Gray

There were 15 centimeters of snow hushing the wheels of the train that came for Mariko, only for Mariko. Part of an arrangement with the government. She was the only child living in the village; the train only ran twice a day, ferrying her to and away from school.

Mariko stamped her feet. Red boots. White snow. Red boots. White snow. For today’s writing exercise, she wrote the words “my life is a white poem.” The snow from afar looked like the coolant foam they had sprayed on reactor 2. Mariko squeezed her eyes shut until the snow was gray through her black lashes.

The train slid to a stop, snow squeaking beneath its wheels.

Mariko boarded the train, taking with her the only color to be seen. Red boots, floral winter coat, pink scarf.  Far away she could see the plant like a gray brick dropped in the middle of a while pile of fire-extinguishing foam.

It had been June, the day Mariko’s father left her at home and went into work on his day off. Seven years. She had been eight then. She did her homework and listened to the radio and when night fell she made dinner for herself. Her father had taught her to be sufficient on her own, perhaps knowing even then what must become of him.

The heat of the train car melted the snow on her lashes and in her hair. Mariko took off her gloves. The train started again. It was an old line, built in the days when the plant had been new and ferried workers to and from the village. Sometimes she sat swaying in the heat, dozing, dreaming of simply sitting on the train as it ferried her away and never coming back.

“You have yourself to think of,” her father would say. Sometimes he would cough after he said that, and in that cough would be blood as red as the snow boots they both wore. And in that blood was the reason she could not leave yet. Her father may have been tied to the village, but she was tied to him.

The way the track looped, Mariko was forced to see the plant twice. The reactor that melted down had not been unlucky number four, but number two. Steaming away its coolant, throwing poison into the bodies of the men working that day. They had died first, and violently. That violence was easy to understand. The slow decline of the workers that were left was something no one understood. Other students avoided Mariko. The coach made her shower before and after PE.

Her father had gone back to work. Her father, Shigeta, Yamashiro, and several others. They worked there still. They walked along the path from their houses to the plant, to tend to the functioning reactors like eggs in a phoenix’s nest. The slightest misstep and they would all burst into fire.

“You have yourself to think of,” Mariko’s father would say, older than his years. He walked with the stoop of a grandfather and his hair fell out in clumps. He and the other men could not think of themselves. No one else would hire them, they could live nowhere else. Each day they shuffled to the plant, and each evening they ran a geiger counter over their bodies before they went home. Sometimes they would simply fall where they were, as if suddenly remembering their own mortality. They could even go  back to their families to be cremated. Their fate was a gray lead coffin that would seal their poison away.

A white man-made hill cut between Mariko’s gaze and the plant. She thought of leaving sometimes. Her mother’s family beckoned her out, writing letters full of pleading and appeals to logic. There were more easily accessible schools where they lived. There would be no drench showers, no Geiger counters. Mariko could eat vegetables grown from the garden and the well water would always be pure. What kept her in the village?

The letters were stuck, unanswered, in an old cedar box where her mother had kept her festival Yukata. Their white dinged with years until it too became gray.

Too soon, the plant was back in sight.

The block building, sinister in its ordinariness. The gray of the concrete sucked all the warmth from everything surrounding it. The gray weight of it pinned their lives to this place, buckled her father’s back and knees so that he stooped. Mariko averted her eyes, tracing the trodden snow from the plant’s entrance down to a knot of people who stuck like grey flags in the white. Shigeta. Hayashi. All the plant workers struggling through the snow in their aging bodies…

Mariko stood, rocking against the train’s sway. The plant workers, like gray ants, clustered in the dirty white of the snow. Mariko looked and looked, but could not help her gaze retreating with the train, could not remain as the train bore her away from the gray plant and the gray body lying prone in the snow. The body grew smaller and smaller until it was indistinguishable from the snow around it, all that remained in the distance were two boots red as blood on a white handkerchief.

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Before the Fairy Tale

This is not how you get a happy ending.

First, you must cast aside every blessing given you. Slam the door on everyone who was present at your christening. Grind luck beneath your heels.

Fortune favors those who set off in search of nothing. So you must look for something. Make it unsavory. Vengeance, perhaps. Spite. Scorn everyone you meet on the road, every fairy in disguise. Steal from beggars. Trick innkeepers so you rest on feather beds while the seventh son of a seventh son slumbers in the barn outside.

Leave to a country where no one knows your face. Invent a life for yourself. Lie frequently and boldly. Care not who you hurt, this is the callous you must form on your soul.

Is there a wonder nearby? Perhaps a flaming bird comes to rest in the tallest tree in the forest. Or a giant buries the eye that can see through rock under a church every night. Or a prince lies wreathed in iron thorns, awaiting the gentle kiss of an understanding woman.

Take this marvel in your hands and warp it so that none can lay hand on it but you. This is power, now. You are feared, whispered about.

In every forest trail, take the most well-lit fork because the easiest path always leads downhill. Yield to temptation. If a fox bids you to bite from a wicked apple, bite. Shun mirrors, because they will tell you the truth. Covet finery. Grasp at debauchery. Pleasure is fleeting so you must dose yourself with increasing highs.

There will come a day when you find a path that does not split but rambles into the darkness. Follow it. Through the muck and the mud, through thickets and brambles and beasts, through all sorts of indescribable horrors…

Until you find a cottage. It will be empty.

Fill it.

Open the door and step inside. Light a fire in the fireplace. Seize the nicest chair for yourself and draw it close to the heat.

Sit.

Notice how time has taken the flush of health from you, how you’ve bargained away the tautness of your skin.

You are the hag now. And the only fate you have is one you made with your own two hands.

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Creepypasta Cookoff 2017

It’s that time of year again! Behold, my entries to the creepypasta cookoff:

The Hoard

Espiritu

Sweethearts

While you’re at it, take a gander at the entire friggin’ archive

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Cold Comfort

Marishka lay in the dark, very cold and very still. Splinters from the unfinished box she lay in made tiny rosettes on her skin that would have bled if her heart was beating. Her breast did not rise and fall with breath, her eyes did not track beneath her closed lids. She dreamed.

A door slammed above. Curtis was back. He, the maker of the pine box. He, the one who found Marishka.

“…here. I put it in that.”

That?” A heavy shuffle on the steps. Male, heavier than Curtis. Taller. More careful steps.

“Yeah. Pretty sweet, right? I knocked it together myself.”

“Is that a coffin?” Incredulity, readiness to run.

“Yeah, man. It’s where I keep my undead bride.”

A moment of silence, of pulse slowing to a calm.

“Curt, you funny. You open the damn thing, funny man.”

“Alright.” A hint of chuckle edged Curtis’s voice. The lid creaked back, throwing a sliver of light onto the cold translucency of Marishka’s skin. She lay impossibly still in the coffin.

Curtis’s audience, a black man who wore scrubs that matched Curtis’s own, leaned over the coffin and gaped.

“The fuck—” was all he got out. Curtis was poised at his jugular, bearing a scalpel like an auger ready to drive into a maple tree. The man choked as Curtis tapped his neck, red spattering the white front of Marishka’s dress.

She opened her eyes.

“Come and get it.” Curtis made kissing noises. Marishka rose and clamped her lips to the man’s neck, her mouth filling with arterial spurt. In the yellow light of the single basement bulb, her eyes were ice blue and her hair was as blonde as the saints on smashed church windows. Curtis watched her drink with a self-satisfied smile. Once her belly was fully Marishka was no warmer, no more alive, but she moved more freely.

“I dreamed of my homeland,” she said as Curtis manhandled the body to the nearby bathtub. “I was a girl. The nobleman who ruled over my village was a beast.”

“Mmm.” Curtis held the dead man’s head to the drain and began sawing.

“He would have spells where he rode his horse up and down the valley. When he saw me on the road one day, he fell on me like a dog. When I woke the next night, I was like this.” Marishka rubbed the splinters in her skin, which now flowered with blood the color of old wine.

Curtis sectioned the body, wrapping the parts in plastic bags. He lifted Marishka, bridal-style, onto the embalming table that he usually disguised with a tablecloth.

“Sometimes I wonder if what I dream was never true,” Marishka said as he folded her arms, funeral-style, over her chest, “and I have always been like this. There is no one left to tell me if I’m wrong or right.”

“Sure baby,” Curtis said, undoing his belt, “if you could just raise…that’s it, that’s good. Nice and still, just like that. Ohhhhh…”

 

Three days of the week Curtis worked at the hospital. The rest of the time he stayed at the abandoned house he sheltered Marishka in, doing odd repairs and the like. Sometimes he brought bodies home from the same morgue where he’d found Marishka and did things to them. Marishka watched him, curled up in a corner with her chin resting on her knee.

“Do you think you will ever find a way to end me?” she would ask.

Curtis would furrowed his brow, not looking up from today’s cadaver. “Why would you want that?”

“This life, I do not care for it.”

“Then kill yourself.” Curtis’s flippant tone could be heard even over the bone saw.

“I have tried. Do you think I have not tried?” Marishka rearranged herself painfully. Her joints ached with a cold that never seemed to go away. “You must find a way, on these bodies. You must free me, if you love me at all.”

“Sure, baby.” Curtis placed the cap of a skull on the wall of the bathtub. Marishka’s eyes followed his actions, the only moving thing in her body.

“When?”

“Soon.”

It was a conversation they had often.

 

Curtis readied himself in front of the cracked basement mirror. The lights were confined to a plug-in nightlight and a single candle by his suit jacket. Curtis straightened his tie in the mirror. His shirt was the color of an eggplant and buttoned up to the second button. Marishka watched him in a mirror that held no reflection for her.

“You go out tonight?”

“Yeah, baby.” Curtis frowned at himself, wiping at a smudge of shaving cream behind his ear. “Been thinking. I’m sure you’re getting tired of this, so I got an idea. There’s this girl at work, Laura.”

He waited for Marishka to respond. Nothing, not even the sound of breath. She could be anywhere in the room and he wouldn’t even know.

Curtis turned from the mirror. Marishka still sat in the corner, a thin white shadow.

“There’s this girl,” he repeated, “and she’s…I was going to bring her here. You bite her. Then I let you go.”

Marishka blinked, lids sliding over her eyes with the stiffness of many years. “You would bring another girl here.”

“Yeah, you bite her and I let you go. I’ve got a couple different ways lined up, I’m pretty sure one will work.” Curtis turned back to the mirror. He was twitchy.

Marishka did not talk, but long periods of silence were the norm for her.

“You would make another like me?” she asked finally.

“Yeah, I mean, it’s only fair.” Curtis spoke with increasing speed. “I’ve been keeping you, feeding you, making sure—you owe me, okay?”

“Would you keep her here, in this same box?” Marishka’s bird-thin hand brushed against the coffin. “Would you do to her what you do to me after feeding?”

“Look, it’s not your concern.” Curtis finally turned completely from the mirror and grabbed his jacket. “You want out? This is how you get out. I’ll be back at nine.”

He watched Marishka crawl into the box and nodded, satisfied.

 

The door creaked above.

“…this way.”

“Ugh, what is this?” The girl’s voice had a mellow timber. Her heels clacked on the basement steps.

“It’s where I put all those bodies I steal from the morgue. After I fuck them, of course.”

“Ha-ha-ha.” The girl was uneasy and trying not to show it. Her steps were reluctant. A rustle. Curtis had her by the arm, tugging her down the steps.

“It’s just here. I built the box around it, too big to move.” Curtis’s tone jabbed at her. “Come on, you scared? I only bite on the first date.”

“Good, ‘cause you’re not getting anything else.” The girl’s heels hit the cement of the basement floor. The box lid creaked on its hinges, but Curtis did not open it just yet.

“You ready?”

“Sure.” The girl heaved an irritated sigh.

Curtis threw the coffin lid back completely. Marishka lay within, impossibly still.

The girl, Laura, stumbled back. “The fuck?”

Curtis smiled and crossed his arms. And waited.

“What the fuck?” Laura had a small clutch purse and wore a cocktail dress. Her made-up face was frozen in horror. “What the fuck is wrong with you?”

Curtis glanced over at the coffin. Marishka lay still.

Laura was struggling with her fight-or-flight instinct, hand dipping into her clutch purse. “Jesus, they said you were a sick fuck, Curt, but this—”

Curtis looked over at the coffin and frowned. “No, wait, this isn’t right. Come over here.” He approached Laura, flicking the switch at the base of the steps at the same time and plunging the room into darkness. Laura met his grasping hand with a box cutter she pulled from her purse. Curtis gasped, gripping his hand at the wrist.  He looked back at the coffin, stupefied. Marishka did not move.

“Keep the fuck away.” Laura took another swipe, he danced away from the blade.

“Come on, you bitch,” he snarled, although whether he spoke to Laura or Marishka was ambiguous.

Laura made a passing feint and then stuck the blade in his neck. Curtis gasped all the air from his lungs and sank to the floor.

Laura looked down at him, shaking. “I’m calling the cops,” she said numbly.

As she stumbled up the steps, Marishka’s eyes opened. She put the dainty white form of her foot out of the coffin and onto the concrete that was as cold as her skin. She rose. Curtis could only draw irregular breaths, eyes glazing over. He pulled the knife from his neck. As his life dribbled from the puncture wound, he looked to Marishka with pleading eyes.

The girl stepped over him without a single glance and walked silently up the basement steps, out into the night.

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Feed the Cat

I could describe to you the events that led to me standing outside my former friends-with-benefits’ apartment at nine in the evening, but that is one humiliation I’ll spare myself. Don’t think me some lovelorn stalker. I had a key, of course. And instructions. Sergio asked me to look after things while he was out of country. I agreed to do it because doing so would prove how little I cared, whereas if I refused it would have indicated that my desire for him was too great to form even a casual friendship.

Such were the mental gymnastics I put myself through as I turned the key in his front door and took off my shoes in the entryway.

The place still smelled like him, felt like him, tasted like him. Those insufferable prints still hung on the walls to either side of the hi-fi (no television, not for him) and air plants clustered every available surface.

The only new thing was winding around my ankles and making an attractive purring sound. Sergio had refused to get a cat while we were together, said they were all the drain of children and twice the mess. Well, it looked like my leaving had rattled him more than he cared to admit. I scratched the agreeable creature between the ears and felt a bit of smug triumph.

First order was the air plants. Sergio was an avid collector; his instructions for their care would have filled a book if he could be bothered to write it down. He would never admit it, but I was the only human being on earth who he could trust with his extensive verbal inventory. The cat slithered around my ankles, making each step perilous.

Of course Sergio had not mentioned his new pet, nor had he left instructions on where the food or his bowl was. I was forced to go through cupboards like a common burglar. I found that he had eschewed plates and bowls for a new shallow trencher that served the purpose of both, that he had finally carved his compressed brick of darjeeling to the last hockey-puck sized lump, and that he had painted the shelves without bothering to put down liner paper. I’m sure you’ll notice the absence in that sentence.

The landline rang, and I nearly tripped into the glass conversation table when the cat darted across my path at the exact wrong time. The caller ID was no one I cared about, and I cursed myself for getting worked up.

The succulents in Sergio’s study were listing in their pots, their sandy soil had been scattered and used as a litter box. No doubt Sergio had some newer, fail-safe system that he hadn’t bothered to implement properly before leaving. That had been our relationship in a nutshell, him leaping ahead and leaving me carrying the luggage.

But I wasn’t bitter.

As I stepped out to fill the watering can, a toppling vase nearly brained me. I looked up to find green eyes winking at me from the depths of Sergio’s tallest shelf of collectibles, ten feet off the ground. The feline was a remarkable acrobat; Sergio himself had to resort to a painter’s ladder to reach that spot.

As the pitcher filled, I searched some more. I found his copper mugs, green patina eating the rims. Beneath the sink his all-natural cleaners with all the scrubbing power of weak tap water. His emergency stash of condoms (expiration date showed last year.)

The cat came musing up to my outstretched hand, turning on the charm. I let it tickle me with its whiskers. It was the friendliest thing I had seen in this apartment since I’d left in in a huff so many months ago.

Damp seeped into my sock.

Somehow the watering can had fallen at an angle, now it overflowed onto the counter and down to the linoleum at my feet. I watched the spreading puddle almost idly until I saw the water nearly touching the still-plugged-in electric kettle. I could have cleared a cyclone fence with my leap as I shut off the water. The cat disappeared once more, and I was left to wring out Sergio’s microfiber mop in the dirty sink.

Something speared into my heel as I stepped from the kitchen. I held my foot and saw the floor now littered with broken trinkets, the upper shelf cleared. I cracked. I texted Sergio, editing and re-editing my message so many times it sounded almost nothing like what I wanted to say.

WHERE IS YOUR CAT’S FOOD was my weak attempt at a missive.

As I pulled glass splinters from my foot, I heard a thumping sound and a muffled mew. I looked up at the window to find the cat blinking benignly at me from the other side of the glass. Sergio lived on the seventh floor.

The air was frigid as I heaved open the window, my hands almost froze to the thin concrete apron that ran the length of the building. The cat sat a comfortable distance away from me, curled into itself. I could just barely graze its paws with my fingertips if I leaned all the way out the window. The cat retreated.

I looked down at the ledge and then up at the cat. Truly, if it wanted to it could walk right back to the window and into the safety of the apartment. But there was frost clinging to the ledge and such a long drop beside me and the cat was so tantalizingly close that I thought I could just grab it up and be done with it.

As I half-clung, half-crawled to the cat, it edged away from me. I found a piece of ornamental brickwork and pulled myself fully onto the ledge. Favoring my injured foot, I gathered in a crouch for one final rush.

My phone buzzed in my pocket. As I glanced down, I felt pressure and four sets of nail spikes driven into my leg as the cat leapt past me. I overbalanced and then I was in the air.

Seven stories for a person is not seven stories for a cat. I lived, barely. I broke my fall (and other things) on the way down to the ground, landing spine-first on a filthy pile of snow. Looking up, I could see the cat peering down at me from the window, curled up picture-perfect like something out of a Christmas card. My phone had survived impact in my pocket. The last thing I saw before I blacked out was the cracked screen and a reply text from Sergio reading, simply: I DON’T HAVE A CAT.

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Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds

Word came down from the northern camp that someone wanted to speak with Morgan. Someone who knew him.

To Morgan the notion was as alien as the concept of a hot shower or suddenly bursting into song. His days had long since encompassed the sun, the sea, his little flotsam shack, and not much else.

Deandra asked him how he felt about it. Morgan liked to play with her little daughter Lucy as she walked in the shallows gathering periwinkles. The tide made a seething sound as it lapped the shore, due to the many bits of glass that washed in on it. Deandra wore leg protectors.

“I don’t know,” Morgan admitted. Lucy was climbing up a jagged bit of rock, he held his hand up as if cushioning her with air.

“Must be nice, having someone know you,” Deandra said wistfully. The periwinkle in her hand extended eyestalks; she sucked it right out of the shell without looking away from Morgan.

“Depends. My pop was out on the east coast, he’s gone. I can’t think of anyone who might have a burning need to see me.”

“If it is someone you’ve missed, will you leave?” she ducked her head. In many ways, Deandra was like a child. It protected her, as Morgan’s own coping mechanisms protected him.

“Don’t see why.” Morgan hupped to the girl on the rock. “Come on, Lucy goosey.”

Lucy giggled and jumped, landing squarely in his grip. She had never seen a goose. Like most children born after the cataclysm, her corneas were clouded and her skin had a texture like sharkskin. Lucy rode on his shoulder as Deandra carried her harvest bucket back to camp. They stepped around other shanties, other shells constructed of bits of debris. A woman lugging a tub asked if anyone wanted her wash-water. Another woman with hair the color and consistency of steel wire raised her hand. Morgan guessed she would use it to wash but no, the second woman drank it in great, gasping draughts. Morgan didn’t blame her. They were all thirsty. Above them the sky, even in the day, was studded with a thousand pinprickles many times more sharp and beautiful and terrible than the glass in the sea.

“Lucy’s birthday is today.” Deandra fidgeted with her bucket. “I…have some things. Pretty shells. Smooth glass. James said he found some wire, he could do something with it.”

Morgan could sense the unspoken question in her words. “Well, it’s no birthday without a candle, right?”

Deandra smiled, dimpling one cheek.

 

The visitor was waiting at his shack, dressed in a rough collection of scraps of fancy cloth. It was Christine, his late wife’s sister. Morgan spared a moment of thought for Kelly and the shape she had taken in his life, another life. He felt a pang in a place he had thought totally atrophied.

Christine was one of those performance criers. She demonstrated now, getting up a good head of steam before Morgan had set one foot in his hut.

“Morgan, I…” She made a series of wails. Morgan encompassed her in a hug he didn’t really want to give until her sobbing subsided. Strong emotion made him uncomfortable now. It seemed like frivolous excess. There was no audience for tears, not anymore.

He was allowed egress from the hug.

“You look well,” he said because he had been told that was what people said in these situations.

Christine sucked in a sob. She had found eyeliner somewhere. It wasn’t waterproof.

“Becky heard you were living here. We thought you were dead.”

“Likewise. How…how is everyone?” He didn’t mean for conversation to be so stilted, it was just conducted in a language that had nearly gone extinct in him.

“Mom’s dead. Aunt Midge. Jerry, you remember Jerry? The rest are okay.” Christine gave a gasping breath. “Oh god, it’s so good to know you’re alive.”

Was it? To Morgan, it was a fact as unremarkable as the wetness of water or the red tinge to the sky. “You too. I’m glad that…I’m glad you’re glad.”

Christine grabbed his hand in an iron grip. “You have to come back with me, we have to let the family know you’re alright.”

Morgan felt the strongest emotion he’d felt in a long time. It was discomfort. His conscious mind had dulled to a gray sleepwalk, and now his former sister-in-law threatened to drag him into new, painful colors. He retrieved his hand. “It’s really okay, Christine.”

But she was shaking her head. “You don’t understand, it’s better in our camp. We have nice things.” She produced a serving spoon, silvery with a scalloped handle. It looked like the ones at the hotel where he’d married Kelly. Christine deposited it in his hand and closed his fingers over it, as if bestowing some great secret. “We’re working on rebuilding. We could have power any year now.”

Morgan looked at her bright cloth coat. She had rouged her lips as well, he could see where she had bitten it away.

“While I appreciate what you say,” he said slowly, “I really can’t come with you. I live here now. You live there. That’s how it is.”

Christine stammered, mouth flapping open in a bloom of sickly pinks and reds. There were sores on her tongue. “How can you say that? How can you live without family?”

Morgan had no words for that, so he shrugged. “I’d like you to leave.”

“What if I don’t?” Once upon a time, in a different world, Christine had been a lawyer. You could see it now in the squaring of her posture and the set of her mouth.

Morgan shrugged. “I’ll leave then.”

He turned around. Something caught ineffectually at his coat, but it could just as easily have been the mutant seabirds for all he knew.

 

Lucy’s birthday party was down in the dell. Just beyond the bright circle of faces was the sea. A few bodies turned on the tide. Morgan looked at the glass that filled the water. In a few decades the glass would be worn smooth and the beach would be pleasant to walk. Perhaps he would live long enough to see it. That was hope enough for him.

“You’re here!” Deandra’s grin showed her underbite, which she was shy of. Morgan kissed the side of her head. For the birthday girl, he produced a scrap of Christine’s monstrous coat. James had twisted the wire into a daisy. The old woman who lived in a cottage made from broken slate had braided Lucy’s hair.

“Didja meet up with your folks?” Deandra asked.

“Sure. Had a nice time.” Morgan bent low and picked Lucy up to toss her in the air.

There was no cake mix, so they mounded sand. Lucy’s candle was a scallop-handled spoon that winked the light of the sun. Instead of Happy Birthday, Morgan sang Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. Lucy laughed and clapped and looked as happy as any child had ever been. Morgan bent low and whispered in her ear, just as the red sun slipped behind the horizon and the thousand seething points of the sky throbbed in celestial radiation.

“Make a wish,” he said, “blow it out.”

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Le Masque Blanchâtre

The three surviving reels of Le Masque Blanchâtre reside in a vault of the Cinémathèque Française, and with good reason. The film has been lost, found, dropped, stolen, set on fire, eaten, and buried underground. The fact that any of the highly flammable nitrocellulose stock remains is nothing short of a miracle. But why is this film so frequently targeted for demolition?

Because it holds the dubious honor of being the only known film adaptation of The King in Yellow.

The film itself is not the only “lost” element. The director Louis André disappeared in Vichy France in a suspected political assassination. Greta Ors, at one time set to be the European Louise Brooks, made only one other film before dying of a morphine overdose. Jean Fleuret, cinematographer on every single André production, was one of the film’s first detractors when he kidnapped the reels just before the aborted premiere. Similar tales of woe afflict the assorted cast and crew; if a film can indeed be cursed then you could find no better candidate than Le Masque Blanchâtre.

The production itself was no stranger to misfortune. Plagued by setbacks, mishaps, and funding troubles, the fact that the film was even finished is a testament to the sheer doggedness of its director. Even before reading the infamous play, André was a man possessed by his own ambition. Yvette Andréyor called him “a nightmare of a man” after contracting pneumonia on the set of his historical biopic Alexandre. But once he laid hands on the mythic text, he was a man bewitched.

Little remains of the shooting script, but a vague summary can be pieced together from scraps and secondhand references. The film expands the role of a nameless courtier who delivers news to Cassilda towards the end of the first act that causes her to run shrieking into the empty streets. Filmed entirely from his perspective, all the established beats of the first act are there, from the return of Cassio from battle to the preparation for the bal masqué. Other, murkier elements from the second act are hinted at. One screen direction calls for Cassilda being shot “[…] through a kaleidoscope of mirrors, her hollow-eyed image retreating in all directions until there is nothing left but the empty face of the glass.” From costume orders we can infer that the bal masqué took cues from Rococo design with a sleek modernist flair. Of note is a single edict, two words dashed off in André’s increasingly manic handwriting: “no yellow!” Greta complained that her role(which combined elements of Cassilda and Camilla) required hours on end of “lying…beneath a great fish tank as they filmed me through the water.”

These snippets do two things. One: they paint the picture of an ambitious shoot filled with offbeat techniques.

Two: they make almost no mention of the plot at all.

The play itself is quite infamous for its disjointed format; the banality of the first act almost farcically belying its infamous (but never summarized) second half. André took it one step further, eliminating nearly all spoken dialogue from the script save for a single exchange near the end, the famous “mask” dialogue shifted from the first act to the final.

Had it survived its own premiere, it most certainly would have been revered as a masterpiece. But alas, dissent built even as early on as the editing suite. Fleuret wrote in his journal “[the film] has changed him. He is no longer my beloved Louis but a beast with wide, staring eyes and no heart. I fear his ambition may doom us all.” These two cryptic statements are the only clue as to what led Fleuret to kidnap the film and attempt to incinerate it. He succeeded only in destroying the final reel and was taken to jail laughing that he had “lessened that monstrosity’s taint on the world.” Indeed, without its final reel, Le Masque Blanchâtre could never be screened for the general public. André would attempt smaller private screenings, leading to the incidents listed in the opening paragraph.

André was a man broken in the years after. He never attempted to film another movie, but spent his remaining days carting the surviving reels around, screening for whomever he could. It is rumored that this is what led to his disappearance in occupied France, lugging around canisters of “entartete kunst” was practically signing his own death warrant.

The film eventually resurfaced after the war. André did not.

The film was available for private screening up until 1988, when a film critic ate 23 feet of the second reel. Time and wear will diminish the remaining film, as no attempts to preserve it have gotten past the fundraising stage. Le Masque Blanchâtre languishes in the safe, the greatest unseen masterpiece in the world.

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In Pursuit of Red

Illustration provided by the excellent Bill Draheim

The story of China’s first true red glaze is a well-known and probably apocryphal tale: a rooster wandered into the vent-holes of a royal kiln. The smoke from its cremated body starved the fire of oxygen, creating the first recorded instance of the fabled “ox-blood” glaze. The emperor was struck by the color and demanded more. The potter did all he could to replicate it but in the end, despairing, flung himself into the fires of the kiln. Thus was ox-blood obtained.

That is where the tale, apocryphal or not, ends in most tellings. But there is a further chapter that is not often repeated. For there was another potter.

This potter rivaled the man who flung himself into the kiln, coveting the color that dripped red from the funerary pots. Now ox-blood was all the rage in the imperial court, and so this potter set out to replicate it. After careful examination of the circumstances around his rival’s death, the potter concluded that human sacrifice was needed.

In the country there was no shortage of beggars, vagabonds, orphans, human detritus that would not be missed. The potter’s first experiment buckled under his enthusiasm; too many bodies stacked like kindling put the fire out. His next attempt, a single beggar, yielded only three ox-blood specimens.

The potter’s mania grew like a rash. In his haste to fill the kilns, his craftsmanship became sloppy and haphazard. The potter began insisting he heard a voice coming from the kiln itself, the cracks and pings whispered to him over the sleepless nights he fed it with firewood. The kiln he had was not enough. He must build a more magnificent kiln, one that bit into the hillsides like a dragon. The potter dug and plastered and bricked until his fever dream was made flesh and the dragon-kiln stretched 2½ li into the surrounding countryside. He had servants fill the kiln to bursting and, as the last man delivered the last cup the stack, he bricked up the entrance and set fire.

They say the heat from the kiln boiled a nearby lake. They say the agonized wails of the servants reached the capitol. When the potter cracked open the kiln, he found half the pieces were ox-blood. Not good enough.

The potter continued his experiments until the country was stripped of passer-by. With diminishing outside influence, the potter grew deeper into his mania. No longer content to speak, the potter claimed the kiln beckoned him with shapes in the fire, indicating the next sacrifice. His eyesight dwindled as he stared deep into the white-hot belly of the kiln, pots exploding from the thermal shock each time he removed the spy-brick. Each new setback only strengthened his determination. He finally made his most audacious claim to date: he would deliver to the emperor an entire kiln-full of blood red pottery. Audacious because if he failed to deliver he would forfeit not only his but the lives of every single member of his family.

The allotted interval passed. Officers of the crown set out to the pottery works to find the compound devoid of all life. Curious and malformed lumps of clay occupied the stands that should have held elegant vessels. The officers followed a large patchwork bloodstain to the rear of the compound, where the last bit of motion remained.

The kiln had been bricked over not with stones but skulls. The potter complained that he could not yet make the delivery as the kiln would not reach temperature, sightlessly tossing log after log into the cold firebox.

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