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When I published “Empathy” three years ago this month, I was confronted in the comments by the dumbfounding realization that some otherwise-intelligent people do not understand that the protagonist of a story need not be good, morally-upright or even admirable in the author’s eyes; she is merely the person the story follows, not some moral exemplar.  Marilith is a courtesan on an Earth very different from the one we know, who has used her paranormal ability to excel in her profession and climb the social ladder.  This tale takes place three years after the first, and if you haven’t read that one yet I strongly suggest you do so before embarking on this one…but do yourself a favor and skip the comments.  You’ll be glad you did.

decanterMarilith’s guest was ten minutes late, and even the aftereffects of the laudanum could not calm her agitation.  It was not the disruption to her schedule that upset her so; Prince Jamal was her only client scheduled for the day, nor were any set for the next.  The disquiet was at least partly due to the empathic focus she was struggling to maintain in the face of nearer, stronger voices, but the rest of it…

“Mistress, please,” begged her handmaiden; “let me bring you something to calm you.  I have never seen you in such a state.”

“No!” snapped Marilith.  “It’s too late for that, Cynthia; he’s long overdue already, and I’ll need all my willpower for this.  I’ve done all I can do, and now all that remains is to wait.”  As if in punctuation to her sentence, the soft gong which signified a new arrival on the landing stage sounded in the antechamber.  And yet Cynthia hesitated with uncharacteristic inefficiency until her mistress ordered her to go.

The trip to the roof and back was not a long one, yet today it seemed interminable; by the time the Prince was announced, his hostess felt as though she was about to scream.  But luckily for her, the emotional communication enabled by her psychic gift was unidirectional; he had no idea of the turmoil which raged behind her penetrating purple eyes and her soft, enigmatic smile.  “Welcome back, Your Highness.  It has been too long.”

“Lies do not become you, Marilith,” he said, and a wave of panic engulfed her; did he know what she was planning?  How could he have discovered…”You would be just as happy if you never saw me again, except for the fact that you would then be cheated of the ridiculous fee I pay you.”

“Your Highness does me an injustice; surely you don’t believe I could hide such unkind thoughts without wearing them on my visage.”

He laughed, an especially unpleasant laugh even by his standards.  “You must think me a very great fool, woman; even a common whore knows how to disguise her true feelings for the men who pay her, and you are no common whore.”

“As you say, My Lord.  But if you believe this of me, perhaps you should find another courtesan more to your liking.”

He pulled her up against him, and the wave of anger and hatred which engulfed her almost drowned her doubts and fears.  “I would, if there were another fit to wash your feet,” he said in a tone which weirdly mingled resentment with admiration; “besides, you know very well I couldn’t trust anyone else.”

“So you have said, My Lord,” she said, suppressing a shudder as his right hand moved down from her waist, “but I fail to comprehend what makes me especially trustworthy.  I can sense your feelings, not the other way around.”

“You do more than just sense feelings, witch,” he spat; “they become a part of you and overwhelm your own.  I had prepared quite a dossier on you ere I approached you the first time; my advisors feel you would be incapable of violence because your victim’s terror would overwhelm you.”

“That is true, My Lord,” she whispered in his ear, “but I am not the only one here.”

weaponized nailsThough she had experienced it many times, Marilith never failed to be astonished by the incredible silence with which Cynthia could move when necessary.  And though she had been fully apprised of her attendant’s capabilities before she even purchased her, the reality was more terrifying than she could have dreamed.  Two extra pairs of arms shot forth from her gown with the speed of striking cobras; six sets of razor-sharp fingernails glinted like gems for only an instant before they were coated in blood; thirty powerful digits ripped out the princely entrails with the ease and energy of a child scattering shredded paper from the interior of an eagerly-awaited package.  And Marilith was not sure if she would ever stop screaming, much less sleep again.  She drew her ornate dagger and plunged it into her servant’s body over and over and over again; for her part Cynthia quietly accepted the attack, each wound closing instantly as though the blade had been plunged into water rather than flesh.  And when the hysterical girl finally collapsed into wracking sobs and let the blade drop from her nerveless fingers, the dispassionate handmaiden gathered her up as gently as one might handle a sleeping kitten, and bore her toward the bath after stepping through the gore that had until recently been a human being.

Once she had pressed the prepared wine to her mistress’ lips, bathed her tenderly and tucked her exhausted body into bed, Cynthia returned to scrub the carnage from the other room; she was unsurprised to find another man waiting there, surveying the scene with satisfaction.  “So it’s done?” he asked unnecessarily.

“As you see, Your Highness.  My mistress’ plan worked perfectly; she was able to remain focused on your emotions and thereby exclude Prince Jamal’s, at least until I could strike.  The kinsman who so troubled you is no more.”

“Good, very good.  And my other operatives have informed me that all of his precautions have been foiled; he will not return this time.”

“Forgive my boldness, Your Highness, but are you absolutely certain there is no chance my mistress will be implicated in this?”

“None whatever.  Once you physically clean the area with the fluids you have been provided, my people will arrive  before morning to remove the more intangible residues.  If the investigators come here at all – which I doubt – they will find nothing.”

“She has done you a great favor this evening, Mighty One.”

“I am aware of that, Cynthia, and she will be handsomely rewarded as we agreed.”

“You know that she will never be the same again.”

“Indeed she will not; her patent of nobility is already in process, and once that’s done it will be a small matter to negotiate an advantageous marriage for her.”

“Thank you, Your Highness.”  Before she rose from the deep bow, the lifelike image had faded from view.  And as she began the arduous process of cleaning, Cynthia thought to herself that though it might be disrespectful, she was very glad indeed that she was not human.

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As is the generation of leaves, so is that of humanity.
The wind scatters the leaves on the ground, but the live timber
Burgeons with leaves again in the season of spring returning.

–  Homer, Iliad (VI, 146-149)

I honestly didn’t think I had another story of Aella in me, at least not this year (if you don’t know who she is, I suggest you first read “A Decent Boldness“, “A Haughty Spirit”, “Glorious Gifts“ and “Wise To Resolve“, in that order).  But as I pondered what I would write instead, I happened to look up from my desk and lo and behold, there she was across the room from me – sitting on the divan, leaning on her sword with her cloak of honor about her shoulders, and dripping rain from the storms of centuries upon my rug.  “Stop dallying, girl,” she said to me, “hasten thou to write down my story for all who have ears to hear.”  When I indignantly replied that I was no girl but a full-grown woman of as many years as she, the reply came, “I lived and died over five thousand years before thy mother’s mother was born, thou soft-handed tart, and no daughter of Pandora with as few scars as thou hast would be counted as a grown woman amongst my people.”  Far be it from me to argue with an ancestor who had come so far to pay me a visit, so here is her story just as she told it to me, minus the outlandish profanity.

Eurynome teach these young girls their manners!Etruscan bronze of a mounted Amazon, c 500 BCE

Oh, they pretend to be deferential enough; it’s all “honored one” and “general” and “good dame” out loud, but I see the impatience in their eyes and the half-hidden smiles as I strap on my sword, don my cloak and place my helm upon my head.  I can almost hear their thoughts; they believe that no matter what my prowess in directing troops may be, I am too old and battle-weary to make good account of myself in personal combat any longer.  But that is because they are too wet behind the ears to understand that age and wisdom will always overcome youth and strength, and one day perhaps I’ll have to show them by knocking one flat on her pretty face.

And what’s so important about this reception, anyway?  It’s not as though I haven’t met a hundred merchants seeking to trade in our land since I was appointed Keeper of the Port.  And it’s not as though this is anything other than a mere formality; a captain who couldn’t present the proper papers or other tokens of good faith would already have been turned away without an important official  having to go out in the rain.  It’s just a lot of damned foolish ceremony; give me a good honest battle any day, and Hecate take all this rigamarole.  Well, at least I have a chariot with an awning, while my impatient bodyguard are forced to sit on horseback exposed to the weather; age and rank do carry some privileges, after all, though the price be aching joints and poor sleep.  And at least the road to the wharf is paved, so there is no chance of my conveyance becoming stuck and delaying my return home in time for luncheon.

Mycenaean womanHow now, what’s this?  The ship bears the painted sails of Crete, whence none have come since before the last war made our waters more dangerous than they cared to brave.  Dare I hope this ship will bear a letter from my dearest friend Phaedra, whose face I have not seen since before my young attendants were born?  Would that it were so!  To read her words and hold in my hand papyrus that she had sealed with her own would be the next best thing to kissing her again and feeling my heart lifted by the sound of her voice.  Already I can see the multicolored skirts of a Cretan woman, standing on the quay beside a tall young man; perhaps she bears the letter I have longed to see for so many years.  As I approach I see that she is hooded against the rain, and bears a bundle beneath her cloak; perhaps it contains precious papyri that she cannot risk getting wet?

Now my chariot stops, and I hear a hubbub among the guards; it seems that the young man has specifically asked to meet me, by name rather than by my title of office.  By all the goddesses, can I dare hope?  Though I have never laid eyes upon him before, his visage is familiar, and though he wears the clothing of a man of Crete, he speaks haltingly in the Amazon tongue as one might who had not used it in many years.  And when the guards announce my arrival, his face beams and his voice breaks with emotion as he calls me his mother.  Some of the bystanders laugh, others seem shocked or even offended; for no Amazon claims her sons after she hands them over to their Scythian sires, and no Scythian man would be foolish enough to expect his Amazon mother to acknowledge him.  But all of their voices grow silent as I step forward to embrace him, and the soft rain from Heaven disguises the tears upon my cheeks as he introduces his wife and places my infant granddaughter in my arms.

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Even boredom has its crises.  –  Mason Cooley

two-faced womanClementine was dreadfully bored.  Once in school she had been punished because, chafing at the incredibly slow pace of a reading lesson, she had forged far ahead of the rest of the class; when it was her turn to read aloud she had no idea where the others were.  Even at eight years old she had bristled at the absurdity of being chastised for excellence, and resolved to learn to split her focus between whatever she was supposed to be doing and what she really wanted to do.  And after many years of practice, she had succeeded to a degree few others could manage; when at work, she carried out her tasks so well and so efficiently that nobody ever imagined that something else entirely unrelated might be going on behind her china-blue eyes.  She had become so good at it, in fact, that her inner mind actually needed something else to do while her outer mind was occupied.

Hence today’s boredom; though she enjoyed her job, there were some parts of it that were repetitious.  And if she had nothing else to think about during those times, she might very well fall asleep.  Yet try as she might, she just couldn’t think of anything else to do.  She had already ordered her schedule for the rest of the day, planned dinner and made a grocery list; after that she had decided on a color of paint for her house, composed a stern letter to the contractor who had left a large pile of building materials in her back yard, and made a mental note to call her little sister.  And that was all she could think of, despite the fact that there were still 45 minutes left before she was done.

She considered the possibility of trying to finish a song she had been working on, but even her admirably-organized mind couldn’t manage that well without a guitar to strum on; besides, the might start humming or singing aloud, and that would obviously betray the fact that her focus on the work at hand was something less than total.  Similar objections applied to practicing her shibari knots, and the idea of doing anything at all about her ballroom dancing lessons was wholly ridiculous.  The very fact that it had crossed her mind in the first place was a bad sign; she must already be experiencing a kind of boredom-induced mental lapse.

What if, she thought, I focused both of my channels on the same thing?  Maybe I’d be able to do it that much better and twice as efficiently!  But it was no use; after 10 minutes of futile introspection she could not escape the conclusion that her current task didn’t even use the full resources of one of her cognitive channels, much less both.  No, it was just hopeless; she just had to give up, and almost surrendered to the urge of throwing her hands up into the air in a gesture of exasperation.  There was a clock in sight, but as it was a digital one she couldn’t even play mental games with the hands; she just had to watch as the minutes crawled by with aching slowness. Twenty-five minutes left.

Twenty-four.

Twenty-three.

Twenty-two.

semaphore womanTwenty-one, and Clementine’s inner mind realized that her outer one was frantically trying to get its attention, like a woman performing semaphore motions while jumping up and down.  And it slowly dawned on her that while she had been fascinated by the clock, her client had gotten up and left the room, and she had absolutely no idea where he had gone.  The confusion didn’t last long; he soon stepped back into the room, drying his hair with a towel, and smiled at her.  “That was amazing!” he said.

“Amazing?” she echoed stupidly.  “What makes you say that?”

“I’ve never seen a woman come like that before!  Once you stopped moaning and bucking, you just sort of went all limp and your eyes glazed over, as though you were hypnotized or something.  It was so hot!”

“Oh, yeah, well, I think you deserve the credit for that,” she lied.  “I mean, I don’t climax like that all the time; I just got lost in the moment.”  Well, at least that part wasn’t a lie.  “Hey, don’t include that in your review, OK?  I don’t want the other gents to feel bad if I don’t react that way with them.”

“Of course, of course,” he beamed, as he opened his wallet and fished out an extra hundred for her.  “But I sure hope you react that way with me again!”

“Oh yes, I think that’s probably likely,” she said, putting on her prettiest smile before she even reached for her robe.  Behind her eyes, inner Clementine was already trying to take credit for the performance; she’d have to sit her down as soon as the client left and patiently explain that it was a team effort, in preparation for a brainstorming session dedicated to working out how to do the same thing regularly and predictably.  And afterward, she’d task inner Clementine with working out what to do with the increased income.

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This is the curse of our age, even the strangest aberrations are no cure for boredom.  –  Stendahl

Nearly everything that had ever gone wrong in Ned’s life was due to the fact that he was so easily bored.  He rarely finished a book or continued watching a television series past the third or fourth episode; whenever he went out to eat he preferred to go to different places each time; he never kept a car for more than a year.  Even wives and girlfriends were replaced as soon as Ned began to tire of them, and eventually he couldn’t even be bothered with relationships any more.  So it was perhaps inevitable that he start hiring escorts.

clonemaidensAt first, Ned felt that he’d never grow bored with “the hobby”; he could see as many beautiful women as he liked, as often as he liked, without any major effort at all.  He figured if he never repeated a girl he would find it exciting for many years.  Eventually, though, the women all began to blend together in his mind, and one seemed like another.  For a while he sought out the quirkiest, least-conventional providers he could; the more uneven their reviews, the more the tattoos and piercings, the more outrageous their drama, the more he liked them.  Then they, too, began to fill him with ennui, and he moved on to fetish providers, dominatrices and every other kinky type he could find.  Ned’s sexual orientation was basically vanilla, though, so that couldn’t last long; he just couldn’t justify spending so much money on women who wouldn’t even spread their legs for him.  Then he tried street girls and amateurish-seeming Backpage denizens; they soon became just as blah as all the others.  Aside from the occasional robbery attempt, freakout or other surprise, whores in general simply weren’t interesting to him any longer.

It was the paying that created the boredom, he figured; he knew that as long as he paid her fee, any prostitute he hired would put out.  There just wasn’t any unpredictability in it, and few surprises, and since being able to predict what will happen next is the very essence of boredom, Ned decided paying to play was no longer acceptable to him.  Picking up regular women was a lot more fun; he was never sure what combination of smooth talk, presents, alcohol, drugs, lies or outright coercion would work to get any of them in bed, nor what would happen when he got them there.  And if he was really lucky, something unpredictable or even dangerous night happen, thereby providing the thrills he craved.

So it was that one night, Ned found himself in a crappy dive in a strange city, hunting his usual game; he had become quite practiced at sizing up his quarry, and so he was deeply intrigued when a woman he couldn’t quite read nonetheless succumbed to his charms and invited him back to her place.  On the way there, the conversation turned to the opposite sex, and Ned (who, truth be told, had imbibed more than was strictly prudent) blurted out how bored he was with women in general:  “They’re so damned predictable, all of ’em the same.  Now you, see, you’re different; you’ve clearly got class, yet you were in that low-class place.  You’re too smart to fall for any lines and too beautiful to go for a guy like me, yet here we are together.  Other women rarely surprise me, but you?  You’re full of surprises.”

“So you like surprises?” she asked quietly, her voice almost drowned out by the hiss of the rain and the blop-blop-blop-blop of the windshield wipers.

“Oh, yeah, I mean what’s life without surprises?  I even like the unpleasant ones in a way, because at least they alleviate the same-old same-old.”

“Yes, I understand.  Well, I’m glad you find me surprising; I think I can promise you at least one more big surprise tonight.”

“Now you’ve got me even more curious.  Care to give me a hint?”

“We’re here; I’ll show you in a few minutes.”  The house was another surprise; it wasn’t quite a mansion but it was still fairly large, and situated on a rather expansive piece of property for being so close to town.  The garage was under the house, and she took his wet things before they even went in; when he turned to go up the stairs she stopped him and pointed instead to another door on the same level.  “I want to show you my playroom.”

bourbonNed felt a bit disappointed; her playroom?  Probably a kink dungeon, in other words.  Ah, well, might as well go through with it, he thought; he was already here, and at least it hadn’t cost him anything.  It had been a while since he’d done anything like this, and maybe she had an interesting twist on it.  Besides, she was offering him a glass of high-quality bourbon from what appeared to be a very well-stocked bar, and that made up for at least a little disappointment.

“When you’re ready, we can go in,” she said with a quiet smile.

“No time like the present.”

“Oh, good, I was hoping you’d say that.  Close your eyes and let me lead you in, and don’t open them until I tell you to, OK?”

“Sure, baby, whatever you say.”

He did sneak a peek, but it hardly mattered; the room she had led him into was pitch-black.  But it was only a moment before she said, “Open your eyes,” and flicked on the light.  The place wasn’t quite what Ned expected; it looked less like a sex den and more like an abattoir, replete with stainless-steel surfaces and bloody knives, and a partially-butchered carcass that Ned did not like the look of at all.

The last word he ever heard was, “Surprise!”

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Time travels in divers paces with divers persons.  –  William Shakespeare, As You Like It (III,ii)

The two of them lay as still as a statue in bed, their white limbs entwined so extensively that they seemed to have been carved by a master from a single block of marble.  Nearby lay one of their cats, equally still, another statue placed as an accent beside the larger subject.  Even had their position not advertised their last activity before sleep, the various objects on the nightstand and the cast-aside clothes on the floor would have; not that they would’ve been ashamed of that, even if they had been aware of my presence.  The only motion in the room beside my own was that of the ceiling fan above them, and that was only barely perceptible.

I had to stand for what seemed a long while to me, staring at it in order to be sure it was moving at all.  Observing it was no more the point of my trespass into the room than voyeuristically spying on my housemates was; it’s just that I have not yet had this power long enough to have become jaded with it.  Things like the sight of two beautiful women frozen in embrace, or a fan’s blades moving so slowly that to a casual glance they seem motionless, are still so strange and fascinating to me that I can’t help but stop and take them in.  I also find myself tiptoeing in such situations, despite the fact that it’s completely unnecessary; any sound I made would be so momentary and so highly-pitched it would be a wonder if they heard it at all.

clock closeupCrossing the room took a few seconds to my perception, but how much time was it really?  I can’t be exactly sure, except that I can fit several minutes of activity between two ticks of a clock.  Where the power came from, or where it will lead me, I have no idea; all I know is that a short course of meditation allows me to access this accelerated state, and that I have no trouble maintaining it for as long as I like.  There do seem to be some limits on the power; for example, it’s very difficult to move large objects while I exist between tick and tock.  And that’s why I was passing through the lovers’ room this morning:  I knew their window would be open against the late springtime heat, and their door would be ajar from one or the other of them visiting the bathroom during the night.

Kitty #2 was on the windowsill, glassy eyes fixed on an equally-motionless bird suspended in midair nearby.  She presented no obstacle; I simply slipped past her onto the fire escape and then made my way spider-like down the wall.  There was no other way to get to the ground; I had discovered the hard way that gravity worked no more quickly on me than it did on the bird or any other object, so if I tried to jump down I would simply hang there in space until I decided to move back into normal time.  But the roughness of the brick wall was enough for me to pull myself down with, and I could go up as easily as down for the same reason.

The street below was already busy even at this hour, but that made little difference to me; the cars were as motionless as everything else, so I could move in any direction I liked, right down the middle of the street if I wanted to, without regard for traffic.  My destination was miles away, but I had no choice other than walking it; pedaling a bicycle, as I had discovered earlier, is utterly exhausting when accelerated.  No matter; I’m a strong walker, and to achieve today’s goal I would’ve been willing to walk clear across the city if need be.  Furthermore, I’ve done this every day for several weeks now, except for the days when the rain created a curtain of suspended droplets that’s almost as hard to move through as if I were walking underwater.  I know the route well, and have already discovered several shortcuts unavailable to those who can be seen by others.

Over a high brick wall lay my final destination; it was no harder to climb than the wall outside my own place, despite the spikes on top.  And then down into the courtyard, and into my hiding place in the shed.  I took the time to make myself comfortable, knowing I might have a relatively long wait in real time; my quarry did not visit here every morning, but when he did he always left around the same time.  And less than an hour ago, the remote camera I concealed here earlier this week had already alerted me to his presence.  There’s no way I could have possibly made it here in time moving at normal speed, and no way I could’ve entered the walled garden without attracting attention even if I did; but for one with my talents, both were child’s play.

camera lensComing back into normal time, I set up the digital camera to record the Great Man’s departure from his mistress’ home; it seemed like forever before he left, though it was probably no more than twenty minutes at the outside.  I started recording as soon as I heard the door open, and the champion of Family Values and sworn enemy of whores obligingly made my mission a success by giving his lady friend a passionate kiss on the threshold.  My excitement made it difficult to achieve the meditative state necessary to going back into accelerated time, but I managed it soon enough; I then returned the way I had come, over the wall and across the miles and into the alley behind my own home, scaling the wall in blatant disregard for the feeble efforts of gravity to pull me back down to the pavement.  The cat must have lost interest in the goings-on outside at some point in the last half-hour, because she was no longer on the sill; the lovers, however, were still exactly where I had left them, though one had thrown a proprietary hand over the other’s nipple as if to conceal it from the unconsciously-sensed intruder in the room.

Kissing their still, silent faces was the one deviation I allowed myself from strict propriety before slipping out, unseen and unheard; I then returned to my room, returned to normal time and connected the cable so my computer could download the footage while I returned to bed.  It was still absurdly early for us, and I was tired from both the exertion and the excitement; but more importantly, I wanted my brain to be well-rested when I sat down to draft the blackmail letter.

 

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This is the last part of the loose trilogy which started with “Serpentine” in December and continued with “Left Behind” last month.  As I explained in the latter preface, they are not connected by characters, events or setting, but by shared motifs.  Some of those motifs are closer to the surface in this offering, while others are hidden much more deeply; one of those is the erotic undertone, which most of you probably wouldn’t even have noticed had I not said something.  If the meaning of the title is unfamiliar, you may wish to consult the first paragraph of “Veneralia“; it may also help you to locate that erotic undertone I mentioned. 

Guthrie, Oklahoma Territory
February 12th, 1895

For almost thirty-five years you have been wonderfully patient with me, dear sister; you have respected my wish not to talk about the events of that fateful trip of my youth in which my first husband met his maker.  For all that time I have allowed both you and the authorities to believe that hostile Indians were to blame, and that the nervous shock was so great I was unable to discuss the details.  Now, I don’t give a damn if the law continues to abide in ignorance about it, but a decent respect for my own kin and for the kindness you showed me after my return, going far beyond what I had any right to expect from you, demands that I take this opportunity to break my silence at last and tell you the truth about what happened, why it happened and why I have never said anything about it.  I leave it to your discretion as to how much (if any) you wish to share with Richard and Janice; perhaps it would be better for you to invent something instead.  You always were the imaginative one; I could never come up with tales like you could, which is why I never even tried to make up some fib to cover up the truth.  I ask you to remember that when reading this; I tell it exactly as it happened, and you well know that I could never have dreamed anything like this up.  As to my children…well, Richard is a good, simple man like his father was, and would certainly conclude that his mother was mad and had run off into the hinterlands in some kind of fit.  But Janice is my daughter for sure, and may eventually need to know (as you will see).

CihuacoatlI don’t recall the exact date when we left Shreveport, but it was sometime in the spring of 1860; I want to say April, but it’s so warm down in Louisiana it may have actually been earlier.  We sailed up the Red River until we reached the western part of what was then called the Indian Territory, and is now known as Oklahoma; after we disembarked we were taken by a guide back into the hills.  As you may recall, George was in search of evidence to support his theories about the spread of myth-motifs, and he had received reports that the Indians who had inhabited this area prior to the mass relocations of the thirties had worshipped a goddess similar to the Aztec Cihuacoatl (that means “Snake Woman”).  For two years he had sent letters back and forth to academics, naturalists, explorers, military officers, government officials and anyone else he thought might have some information on the area, and by the autumn of ’59 he had enough to convince his dean to grant him a sabbatical for field research.  The amount of money Miskatonic granted him, however, was not enough to both pay for the trip and hire an assistant; he therefore hit upon the practical solution of marrying a Mount Holyoke graduate who had planned to become a missionary to the Indians anyway, and not bothering to tell her that his mission to the Southwest was to study the heathens rather than converting them.  Don’t think too badly of him, dear sister; though it is true he married a young and naïve girl to gain an unpaid servant and secretary, it is equally true that I married a middle-aged professor to gain financial support and social status.  Does that shock you?  It shouldn’t; after all, in those days even pursuing an education was a rather unconventional choice for a woman.

I won’t bore you with all the details of the time we spent following fruitless leads, interviewing old Indians with the help of translators, investigating sites that were said to have been sacred to now-extinct tribes, and otherwise chasing wild geese.  George grew increasingly desperate (and increasingly irritable) as summer turned to autumn without our having discovered even enough to base an article on.  He began to follow ever-weaker clues to ever-more-distant destinations, and as the money ran low he eschewed the use of guides entirely; it is therefore unsurprising that late in October we found ourselves quite lost in a desolate region that showed no signs of recent habitation by either white men or red, taking shelter from a torrential downpour in a low cave which we had discovered only that very morning.  After we had been there several hours and eaten the last of the provisions we had brought from the nearest trading post several days earlier, George began to fret terribly; had there been room enough I’m sure he would have paced, but in the circumstances he lacked even that meager outlet for his nervous energy.  But as he became ever more agitated, I became correspondingly calmer; somehow I knew we would be all right, because we were being watched over by an angel.  Finally I told George as much, and…well, I can’t repeat the things he shouted at me.  Stung by his mistreatment I retreated more deeply into the cave, where I discovered a heretofore-unnoticed bend that, after a short tunnel that had to be traversed on hands and knees, opened up into a large, high-ceilinged cavern dimly illuminated through some fissure above by what little daylight there was.  And in that space I saw the unmistakable signs of intelligent habitation.

Returning to the front I called my husband, and though he at first ignored my entreaties his curiosity eventually got the better of him.  When he entered the room he visibly brightened a little, then became more excited about the artifacts I had found, which he said resembled none he had seen yet that year.  He also remarked that everything seemed extremely worn, as though it had been used regularly for a very, very long time.  And while he investigated further, handling object after object, I became aware of the distinct feeling of being watched.  George did not seem to notice, and dismissed my impressions until we both heard the soft scraping sound of something heavy being dragged across the bare stone floor.  We then whirled together, and were confronted with the occupant of this hidden abode.

She was a being who had seemingly come forth out of the realm of legend; from the waist up she was a beautiful, ageless woman with a huge mane of thick, somewhat stiff hair, but below the waist she was a gigantic serpent whose skin bore a complex pattern.  I’m sure you think this apparition must have been utterly horrifying, but I assure you she was quite the opposite; in fact, she was absolutely the most magnificent creature I have ever seen, and I felt as safe in her presence as I would have in our mother’s arms.  Do not be afraid, she seemed to say to me, though her mouth never moved; my kind are friends and benefactors to humanity, and have long watched over you.  I know that you and your mate are lost, and I will draw you a map so that you may find your way back to human places tomorrow morning.

But as I listened, I slowly became aware of another sound, that of George’s raised voice.  And I suddenly realized he was pointing a shotgun at our hostess; he probably would have already fired had I not been so close to her.  “For God’s sake, Tillie, step back!” he shouted; “This monster has mesmerized you, like a snake fascinates a bird!”

“What nonsense, George!” I said matter-of-factly; “Don’t you know who this is?  It’s the very goddess you have been looking for all these months!  This is Cihuacoatl, the Snake Woman, and she and her kind have watched over humanity since we were driven out of Eden!”

“Listen to yourself!” he screamed in near-terror; “Is this any way for a seminary graduate to talk?  It’s a devil who has bewitched your mind!”

“A devil?”  I asked, confused.  “She is as beautiful as an angel!”

“Why do you keep calling this monster ‘she’?  Tillie, please come away before it strikes!”

But it was too late.  George had turned his attention to me, and away from the Lady; I have never seen any living thing move so quickly.  In an instant she was upon him; the gun was hurled against the far wall, and in only a few more seconds he was surrounded by her coils.  He struggled for a while, then grew still, and as he expired in her embrace she wept  –  not soft crocodile tears, but great racking sobs of true anguish.  By contrast, I merely stood mutely and watched him die, nor did I feel any but the smallest twinge when she released his lifeless form to collapse on the floor.  I am truly sorry, my daughter.

“I don’t understand why he reacted so; it was as though he couldn’t see or hear you as I do.”

nagainaHe couldn’t.  Her exquisite shoulders slumped, and she sighed audibly.  It has ever been so.  Though we have guided and protected your race since before you had the power of speech, a certain fraction of your people are deaf to the means by which we communicate…and they invariably react to the sight of us with terror.  We talked long into the night, as though the corpse of my husband was not lying in the next room; she explained that hers was an ancient race from a day when the Earth was warmer and wetter; they were extremely long-lived but neither numerous nor fertile, and had long ago adopted humanity as their heirs.  They appeared in the myths of many countries as the nagas of India, the dragons of China, the feathered serpent of Mexico, and other benevolent creatures; but because of those who were blind to their beauty they also inspired legends of fearsome creatures like the lamia of European legend and the serpent of Genesis.  Perhaps you may agree that she was a demon, and that she made me one by association; perhaps you feel as though she could have stopped George without killing him.  But you have neither seen her nor heard her voice, and George was ready and able to murder an ancient, benevolent creature, perhaps the last of her kind, for no reason other than his own animal fear; had she released him, he would have organized a monster hunt within hours.

The next day I followed her directions and returned to the trading post alone; my serenity and lack of concern were interpreted as symptoms of shock, and the traders were so ready to believe that George had been killed by hostile Comanches that I didn’t even have to make up a lie.  I was still quiet and contemplative when I returned to Massachusetts, and everyone (including you) made the same assumption as the traders had.  Eventually I remarried and had children, so everyone assumed I had “recovered”.  But I was never the same; for all these years and across half a continent I have never been out of contact with My Lady, and many a time I have sat in my house in the still of night, hearing her whisper to me across many hundreds of miles.  She has given me advice, comfort and solace as needed, and because of her I have never felt alone.  But now my husband is dead and my children are grown, and I am no longer needed here; and the Great Mother is old and in sore need of my company and assistance, though she will yet survive me by centuries.  So I must go to her, to faithfully serve her as she has served our whole race.  And know this, dear sister:  though you and others may think me mad, I have never been saner or happier.

With All My Love,
I Remain Very Truly Yours,

Tillie

.
(With grateful acknowledgement to the work of H.P. Lovecraft and A. Merritt).

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After writing December’s story “Serpentine”, I conceived of the notion of making it the first of a loose trilogy, connected not by characters, events or setting, but by shared motifs.  This is the second in that trilogy, and you’ll have a month to ponder which other aspect I plan to explore last.

Jacob Ellis was a nervous young man.  That is, he was habitually nervous; he had trouble sitting still for long unless he occupied his hands with something, and it was often difficult for him to focus on the task before him unless he was very, very interested in it.  It wasn’t that he was stupid; quite the opposite in fact.  His mind was so agile, so filled with curiosity, that he found it difficult to keep it from wandering to things that were more worthy of consideration than the dull matters of clerking.  But since it had been determined long ago that he would follow his father into the legal profession, that was what he had done, despite the fact that he would probably have been more suited to a trade involving more motion and less focus on dry-as-dust wills, deeds, contracts and all the other mundane matters of a family law practice.

But today, he was also situationally nervous, because his father had entrusted him with his first important client:  the estate of Magnolia Machen, the wealthiest woman in the county.  Mr. Machen had been killed in the War, and since many a lost fortune and devastated farm had been left behind in General Sherman’s wake, it had not been difficult for his widow to purchase a grand old house (in need of some repair) and most of the other valuable land in the area, and to build up a considerable income from it.red tape  And since Mrs. Machen was a woman of reclusive and frugal ways, that income had enabled her to invest in the stock market and to acquire other, more valuable properties stretching from coast to coast.

She was so reclusive, in fact, that Jake had not even been aware that she had a daughter until his father told him that he was to meet her at the house today.  And that meeting was the cause of yet a third layer of nervousness:  Miss Machen was stunningly beautiful, with mounds of lustrous hair, dark, piercing eyes and a sinuous grace that more befit a dancer than a debutante.  Being in her presence filled him with powerful feelings he could not clearly define and was not at all comfortable with, and he felt himself perspiring under his seersucker to a degree he felt was profuse, even considering the June heat.  Could she really be almost forty years old?  She didn’t look a day over twenty-two, but if she were that young she’d have been born more than ten years after the late Mr. Machen’s demise.  Best not to think too hard about it.  “You’ll have to forgive me, Miss, but up until today I wasn’t even aware that you existed; I had assumed the estate would go to more distant relatives.”

If she noticed his clumsy handling of the statement, she was far too well-mannered to show it.  “I haven’t lived here since before you were born.  You see, my mother was a singularly cold-blooded woman, and didn’t really want to be burdened with a child.  So I was shipped off at a very young age to be educated in Europe, and have lived with various relatives in various parts of three continents since then.  I have only seen my mother a handful of times since childhood, and the only reason I was here when she died was that she wrote me a letter summoning me here a few weeks ago, once her doctor told her that she only had a little while yet to live.”

“I’m sorry for your loss,” said Jake, mostly because he couldn’t think of anything else to say.  He was a bit surprised that Doc Thompson’s prognosis had been so accurate; he had been largely retired for twenty years, and the only people who still consulted him were those more concerned with his legendary discretion than with his very average level of skill.  Thompson probably knew about the dirty laundry and closet skeletons of most of the best families in the region, and would take that knowledge to the grave in a very few years.  It had been a very profitable specialization for him; people said there was no secret, however dark, that a sufficient sum could not persuade him to keep.

Miss Machen shrugged.  “Hardly a loss, Mr. Ellis; as I just told you, she and I weren’t very close.  The only reason her death affects me more than the death of a business associate is that it stands to be extremely profitable for me.”

Even after hearing about their estrangement, Miss Machen’s coldness in regard to her mother shocked him. I reckon the apple didn’t fall far from the tree, he thought; I won’t be surprised to hear she sends her daughter away, too.  But out loud he said, “Well, um, yes…that is, ah, er, you’re her sole beneficiary.”

“I’m well aware of the contents of the will, Mr. Ellis; my mother did not like surprises, and was therefore not one to inflict them on others.”  Her voice was soft as silk, but her gaze sank into his being like…he preferred not to think about it.  “In fact, if it’s all the same to you we can dispense with the customary formalities; I’d rather just sign what I have to sign and then be on my way.  I’ve a train to New Orleans to catch in only a few hours.”

“Of course; my father has been your mother’s attorney since the early seventies, so it’s the least I can do to, ah, expedite things for you.  There are just, um, a few questions…”

“Oh?”  The brief syllable dripped impatience.

“Um, yes, well, just one really important one, and a minor one.  First, I see we have a copy of the death certificate, but there’s absolutely nothing anywhere about funeral arrangements.”

“My mother didn’t believe in such frivolities, nor do I.  Her remains were cremated.”

“C-c-c-cremated?”

“You find that frightening?” The trace of a smile flickered across the lovely lips, but only for an instant.

“N-no, not exactly, it’s just, um, I’ve never seen that done before.”

cremation urn“There are no local crematories, Mr. Ellis; my mother’s doctor took it to the nearest one.  It’s all in these papers here, and the ashes are in that urn.”  She gestured to a rather plain metal container placed unceremoniously among other boxes on the parlor table.  “Now what was the other matter?”

“Oh, um, it’s just these, um, Arizona ranch holdings; I don’t have all the information I need to deal with them from here, and I’d rather not have to bill you for a trip all the way out there.”

“I believe a telegram to my attorney in Denver would clear that up,” she said, rising from her seat; “I’ll just tell him to respond directly to you.”

Since Miss Machen had pointed it out, Jake had been unable to keep his mind off of the urn; he had never seen the ashes of a human body before, and was consumed with curiosity about what they would be like.  Were they fine, or coarse?  Were the teeth and bones wholly reduced, or were there still shards?  He just had to see, and Miss Machen would be on the telephone with the telegraph office for at least a few minutes.  What would be the harm?  After all, neither the old lady nor her daughter seemed very sentimental about the remains, and neither of them was in a position to see him peeking anyhow.  He turned to the container and lifted the lid, but was startled and confused when he found not ashes, but something white and papery.  He quickly glanced down the hall to be sure his hostess was not yet returning, then reached into the jar and pulled out the contents.  As a boy he had once seen the cast-off skin of a snake, thin and translucent but still retaining the shape of the animal which had left it behind when it became too old and worn to be of use any longer; that’s what the thing in the urn reminded him of, though it was much larger.  And though it had been crumpled and broken in the process of compressing it into the undersized container, it was still quite obvious that the creature which had shed this decrepit husk was possessed of a human shape.

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