Our Lady of Darkness

Chapter 27

Franz felt a little as though he imagined a punch-drunk boxer would. His ears and eyes were still on guard, tracking the faintest sounds and slightest sights, but tiredly, almost protestingly, fighting the urge to slump. Despite all the day's shocks and surprises, his evening mind (slave of his body's chemistry) was taking over. Presumably Fernando had gone somewhere - but why? to fetch what? - and eventually would come back as he'd pantomimed - but how soon? and again why? Truly, Franz didn't much care. He began rather automatically to tidy around him. Soon he sat down with a weary sigh on the side of his bed and stared at the incredibly piled and crowded coffee table, wondering where to start. At the bottom was his neatly layered current writing work, which he'd hardly looked at or thought of since day before yesterday. Weird Underground - it was ironic. Atop that were the phone on its long cord, his broken binoculars, his big, tar-blackened, overflowing ashtray (but he hadn't smoked since he'd got in tonight and wasn't moved to now), the chessboard with its men half set up, beside it the flat slate with its chalk, his prisms, and some captured chess pieces, and finally the tiny wineglasses and the square bottle of kirschwasser, still uncapped, where he'd set it down after offering it a last time to Fernando. Gradually the whole jumbled arrangement began to seem drolly amusing to Franz, quite beyond dealing with. Although his eyes and ears were still tracking automatically (and kept on doing so) he almost giggled weakly. His evening mind invariably had its silly side, a tendency toward puns and oddly mixed cliches, and faintly psychotic epigrams - foolishness born of fatigue. He recalled how neatly the psychologist F. C. MacKnight had described the transition from waking to sleeping: the mind's short logical daytime steps becoming longer by degrees, each mental jump a little more far-fetched and wild, until (with never a break) they were utterly unpredictable giant strides and one was dreaming. He picked up the city map from where he'd left it spread on his bed and without folding it he laid it as if it were a coverlet atop the clutter on the coffee table. "Go to sleep, little junk pile," he said with humorous tenderness. And he laid the ruler he'd been using on top of that, like a magician relinquishing his wand. Then (his ears and eyes still doing their guard rounds) he half-turned to the wall where Fernando had chalked the star and began to put his books to bed too, as he had the mess on the coffee table, began to tuck in his Scholar's Mistress for the night, as it were - a homely operation on familiar things that was the perfect antidote even to wildest fears. Upon the yellowed, brown-edged pages of Megapolisomancy - the section about "electro-mephitic city-stuff" - he gently laid Smith's journal, open at the curse. "You're very pale, my dear," he observed (the rice paper), "and yet the left-hand side of your face has all those very odd black beauty marks, a whole page of them. Dream of a lovely Satanist party in full evening dress, all white and black like Marienbad, in an angelfood ballroom with creamy slim borzois stepping about like courteous giant spiders." He touched a shoulder that was chiefly Lovecraft's Outsider, its large forty-year-old Winnebago Eggshell pages open at "The Thing on the Doorstep." He murmured to his mistress, "Don't deliquesce now, dear, like poor Asenath Waite. Remember, you've got no dental work (that I know of) by which you could be positively identified." He glanced at the other shoulder: coverless, crumble-edged Wonder Stories and Weird Tales, with Smith's "The Disinterment of Venus" spread at the top. "That's a far better way to go," he commented. "All rosy marble under the worms and mold." The chest was Ms. Lettland's monumental book, rather appropriately open at that mysterious, provocative, and question-raising chapter, "The Mammary Mystique: Cold as..." He thought of the feminist author's strange disappearance in Seattle. Now no one ever could know her further answers. His fingers trailed across the rather slender, black, gray-mottled waist made of James's ghost stories - the book had once been thoroughly rained on and then been laboriously dried out, page by forever wrinkled, discolored page - and he straightened a little the stolen city directory (representing hips), still open at the hotels section, saying quietly, "There, that'll be more comfortable for you. You know, dear friend, you're doubly 607 Rhodes now," and wondered rather dully what he meant by that. He heard the elevator stop outside and its doors open, but didn't hear it going off again. He waited tautly, but there was no knock at his door, no footsteps in the hall that he could hear. There came from somewhere through the wall the faint jar of a stubborn door being quietly opened or closed, then nothing more of that. He touched The Spider Glyph in Time where it was lying just below the directory. Earlier in the day his Scholar's Mistress had been lying on her face, but now on her back. He mused a moment (What had Lettland said?) as to why the exterior female genitalia were thought of as a spider. The tendriled blot of hair? The mouth that opened vertically like a spider's jaws instead of horizontally like the human face's lips or the labia of the Chinagirls of sailors' legendry? Old fever-racked Santos-Lobos suggested it involved the time to spin a web, the spider's clock. And what a charming cranny for a cobweb. His feather-touching fingers moved on to Knochenmadchen in Peize (Mit Peitsche)- more of the dark hairiness, now changing to soft fur (furs rather) wrapping the skeleton girls - and Ames et Fantomes de Douleur, the other thigh; de Sade (or his posthumous counterfeiter), tiring of the flesh, had really wanted to make the mind scream and the angels sob; shouldn't The Ghosts of Pain be The Agonies of Ghosts? That book, taken along with Masoch's Skeleton Girls in Furs (With Whips), made him think of what a wealth of death was here under his questing hands. Lovecraft dying quite swiftly in 1937, writing determinedly until the end, taking notes on his last sensations. (Did he see paramentals then?) Smith going more slowly some quarter-century later, his brain nibbled by little strokes. Santos-Lobos burned by his fevers to a thinking cinder. And was vanished Lettland dead? Montague there (his White Tape made a knee, only its paper was getting yellow) drowning by emphysema while he still wrote footnotes upon our self-suffocating culture. Death and the fear of death! Franz recalled how deeply Lovecraft's "The Color Out of Space" had depressed him when he'd read it in his teens - the New England farmer and his family rotting away alive, poisoned by radioactives from the ends of the universe. Yet at the same time it had been so fascinating. What was the whole literature of supernatural horror but an essay to make death itself exciting? - wonder and strangeness to life's very end. But even as he thought that, he realized how tired he was. Tired, depressed, and morbid - the unpleasant aspects of his evening mind, the dark side of its coin. And speaking of darkness, where did Our Lady of Same fit in? (Suspiria de Profundis made the other knee and De Profundis a calf. "How do you feel about Lord Alfred Douglas, my dear? Does he turn you on? I think Oscar was much too good for him.") Was the TV tower out there in the night her statue? - it was tall enough and turreted. Was night her 'treble veil of crape?' and the nineteen reds, winking or steady, 'the fierce light of a blazing misery?' Well, he was miserable enough himself for two. Make her laugh at that. Come, sweet night, and pall me. He finished tucking in his Scholar's Mistress - Prof . Nostig's The Subliminal Occult ("You disposed of Kirlian photography, doctor, but could you do as well with the paranatural?"), the copies of Gnostica (any relation to Prof. Nostig?), The Mauritzius Case (did Etzel Andergast see paramentals in Berlin? and Waramme smokier ones in Chicago?), Hecate, or the Future of Witchcraft by Yeats ("Why did you have that book destroyed, William Butler?"), and Journey to the End of the Night ("And to your toes, my dear.") - and wearily stretched himself out beside her, still stubbornly watchful for the tiniest suspicious sounds and sights. It occurred to him how he had come home to her at night as to a real wife or woman, to be relaxed and comforted after all the tensions, trials, and dangers (Remember they were still there!) of the day. It occurred to him that he could probably still catch the Brandenburg Fifth if he sprang up and hurried, but he was too inert even to stir - to do anything except stay awake and on guard until Cal and Gun and Saul returned. The shaded light at the head of his bed fluctuated a little, dimming, then brightening sharply, then dimming again as if the bulb were getting very old, but he was much too weary to get up and replace it or even just turn on another light. Besides, he didn't want his window too brightly lit for something on Corona Heights (Might still be there instead of here. Who knew?) to see. He noted a faint, pale gray glitter around the edges of the casement window - the westering gibbous moon at last beginning to peer in from above, swing past the southern high rise into full view. He felt the impulse to get up and take a last look at the TV tower, say good night to his slender thousand-foot goddess attended by moon and stars, put her to bed, too, as it were, say his last prayers, but the same weariness prevented him. Also, he didn't want to show himself to Corona Heights or look upon the dark blotch of that place ever again. The light at the head of his bed shone steadily, but it did seem a shade dimmer than it had been before the fluctuation, or was that just the pall cast by his evening mind? Forget that now. Forget it all. The world was a rotten place. This city was a mess with its gimcrack high rises and trumpery skyscrapers -Towers of Treason indeed. It had all tumbled down and burned in 1906 (at least everything around this building had) and soon enough would again, and all of the papers be fed to the document-shredding machines, with or without the help of paramentals. (And was not humped, umber Corona Heights even now stirring?) And the entire world was just as bad; it was perishing of pollution, drowning and suffocating in chemical and atomic poisons, detergents and insecticides, industrial effluvia, smog, the stench of sulfuric acid, the quantities of steel, cement, aluminum ever bright, eternal plastics, omnipresent paper, gas and electron floods - electro-mephitic city-stuff indeed! though the world hardly needed the paranatural to do it to death. It was blackly cancerous, like Lovecraft's farm family slain by strange radioactives come by meteor from the end of nowhere. But that was not the end. (He edged a little closer to his Scholar's Mistress.) The electro-mephitic sickness was spreading, had spread (had metastasized) from this world to everywhere. The universe was terminally diseased; it would die thermodynamically. Even the stars were infected. Who thought that those bright points of light meant anything? What were they but a swarm of phosphorescent fruit flies momentarily frozen in an utterly random pattern around a garbage planet? He tried his best to "hear" the Brandenburg Fifth that Cal was playing, the vastly varied, infinitely ordered diamond streamers of quill-plucked sound that made it the parent of all piano concertos. Music has the power to release things, Cal had said, to make them fly. Perhaps it would break this mood. Papageno's bells were magic - and a protection against magic. But all was silence. What was the use of life anyhow? He had laboriously recovered from his alcoholism only to face the Noseless One once more in a new triangular mask. Effort wasted, he told himself. In fact, he would have reached out and taken a bitter, stinging drink from the square bottle, except he was too tired to make the effort. He was an old fool to think Cal cared for him, as much a fool as Byers with his camp Chinese swinger and his teen-agers, his kinky paradise of sexy, slim-fingered, groping cherubs. Franz's gaze wandered to Daisy's painted, dark-nested face upon the wall, narrowed by perspective to slit eyes and a mouth that sneered above a tapering chin. At that moment he began to hear a very faint scuffing in the wall, like that of a very large rat trying very hard to be quiet. From how far did it come? He couldn't tell. What were the first sounds of an earthquake like? - the ones only the horses and dogs can hear. There came a louder scuff, then nothing more. He remembered the relief he'd felt when cancer had lobotomized Daisy's brain and she had reached the presumably unfeeling vegetable stage ("the flat effect," neurologists called it as if the soaring house of mind became a lightless and low-ceilinged apartment complex) and the need to keep himself anesthetized with alcohol had become a shade less pressing. The light behind his head arced brightly greenish-white, fluttered, and went out. He started to sit up, but barely lifted a finger. The darkness in the room took forms like the Black Pictures of witchcraft, crowd-stupefying marvels, and Olympian horrors which Goya had painted for himself alone in his old age, a very proper way to decorate a home. His lifted finger vaguely moved toward Fernando's blacked-out star, then dropped back. A small sob formed and faded in his throat. He snuggled close to his Scholar's Mistress, his fingers touching her Lovecraftian shoulder. He thought of how she was the only real person that he had. Darkness and sleep closed on him without a sound. Time passed. Franz dreamed of utter darkness and of a great, white, crackling, ripping noise, as of endless sheets of newsprint being crumpled and dozens of books being torn across at once and their stiff covers cracked and crushed - a paper pandemonium. But perhaps there was no mighty noise (only the sound of Time clearing her throat), for he next thought he woke very tranquilly into two rooms: this with the this-in-dream superimposed. He tried to make them come together. Daisy was lying peacefully beside him. Both he and she were very, very happy. They had talked last night and all was very well. Her slim, silken dry fingers touched his cheek and neck. With a cold plunge of feelings, the suspicion came to him that she was dead. The touching fingers moved reassuringly. There seemed to be almost too many of them. No, Daisy was not dead, but she was very sick. She was alive, but in the vegetable stage, mercifully tranquilized by her malignancy. Horrible, yet it was still a comfort to lie beside her. Like Cal, she was so young, even in this half-death. Her fingers were so very slim and silken dry, so very strong and many, all starting to grip tightly - they were not fingers but wiry black vines rooted inside her skull, growing in profusion out of her cavernous orbits, gushing luxuriantly out of the triangular hole between the nasal and the vomer bones, twining in tendrils from under her upper teeth so white, pushing insidiously and insistently, like grass from a sidewalk crack, out of her pale brown cranium, bursting apart the squamous, sagittal, and coronal sutures. Franz sat up with a convulsive start, gagging on his feelings, his heart pounding, cold sweat breaking from his forehead.

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