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Say to her, “My dear, my dear,
It is not so dreadful here.”
 –  Edna St. Vincent Millay, “Prayer to Persephone”

Every year it’s the same; by the time August rolls around Mother has become so overbearing I can barely stand her, so it’s a good thing that’s the start of her busy season.  By the beginning of October she always turns morose, knowing as she does that I’ll be leaving soon, and on the night before I depart she lets loose with such a lugubrious display that a stranger might be forgiven for thinking that my annual return home was something new rather than a ritual we’ve enacted countless times since my youth.  The part I hate most is the tearful goodbye when the carriage arrives; that’s so awful I once tried to sneak out before dawn so as to avoid it, but Mother carried on so unbearably about it for the next several months that Father asked me to promise never to do it again.

asphodelAt least it’s mercifully short; for all her drama she knows better than to break our pact by excessive delay, and before long we’re past the lake and through the tunnel, and I can really relax for the first time in months.  I nearly always sleep through most of the journey; the pomegranate wine my thoughtful husband always sends along acts as a balm to my frayed nerves, and the gentle rocking of the carriage on the dark, cool, quiet road lulls me into the blessed rest I get so little of in my Mother’s bright, noisy house (where it’s impossible to sleep past dawn).  But after we come down onto the plains the road becomes rougher and the number of stops more frequent, and I remain wakeful the rest of the way home.  The sight of endless fields of asphodel brings peace to my soul, and when at last we reach the river I get out and sit beneath the willows to wait for the ferry.

Sometimes the wait is short, and sometimes long; even my driver, who has made the journey more than anyone else, is unable to predict so as to plan his trip accordingly.  Depending on my mood I’ll read or play solitaire, and if time permits I’ll have the driver go among those on the riverbank who lack the proper fare, and distribute it to them from my own purse.  Sometimes I even speak to the others waiting at the landing, especially if there is some notable thinker or entertainer among their number; on occasion I’ve even invited an especially-interesting person to ride the rest of the way with me, but the offer is rarely accepted.  It seems very few wish to arrive at my house any more quickly than absolutely necessary, and though I certainly understand that it still makes me sad.

Fear of the unknown is, alas, a fact of the human condition, and unlike me most only make this trip once.  Rather, they only recall making the trip once, but that’s a distinction without a difference.  So while I’m always happy and relieved to come home, the vast majority are reluctant or even terrified, and know nothing of my hospitality.  That is not how I would have it; were it up to me, I would periodically invite every poet and philosopher on Earth for a great feast at my mother’s house while I’m there for the summer, and tell them all of the beauty and rest which await them in my husband’s domain.  But the first time I mentioned that idea Mother wailed and tore at her hair, declaring that my beloved had warped my mind and begging Father to have the marriage annulled.  And once again, Father took me aside and asked me never to broach the subject again.

That’s the way it always is when I bring up my real feelings about virtually anything, except when they happen to agree with hers.  Though I’m older now than she was when she bore me, Mother has never actually accepted me as an adult, and I doubt she ever will.  She simply wouldn’t admit that I was not very much like her, and refused to believe that I found every nice boy she tried to fix me up with dreadfully boring.  But when I finally expressed an interest in a tall, dark, handsome, commanding and unbelievably wealthy older man, she suddenly decided that I was too young to be married and totally ignored anything I, my suitor or even Father had to say on the subject.  Eventually, I was so annoyed at being treated like a child that I eloped with Father’s blessing; I guess none of us recognized the depth of Mother’s possessiveness, nor the degree to which she was determined to relive her life through me (correcting every mistake in the process, naturally).  She told everyone who would listen that my husband had “groomed” me, that he had taken advantage of my low self-esteem, that he had plied me with expensive gifts and sweet words, and that he did not “really” love me (as if love were something whose purity could be determined with a touchstone) but only wished to “exploit” me.  When I explained to relatives and other concerned parties that this was not the case, and that I was an adult who could make her own choices, Mother declared that my husband had damaged my mind with hypnotic powers, and that I couldn’t be trusted to know what was best for me.  And when those who knew me found that theory rather dubious, Mother adopted a scorched-earth policy and filed rape charges against my husband, swearing that he had abducted me before the eyes of my horrified playmates.  Yes, she actually used the word “playmates”, as though I were still in the nursery.

Obviously, something had to be done; given Mother’s high position and the damage her extended tantrum was inflicting on everyone, there was no way it could be allowed to continue.  She wouldn’t listen to anything my husband had to say, and Father was stuck in the middle; it was therefore up to me, and despite Mother’s low opinion of my maturity I understood that someone had to be an adult here.  After consulting with my husband we decided that I would offer her a deal:  I would live with her for half the year and my husband for the other half.  Of course, that wasn’t good enough for her, and she demanded and threatened and carried on until we had to call in my great aunt to mediate.  We finally agreed to my living with her from March to Octoberpomegranate and my husband from November to February, and that he would be allowed to visit me periodically while I was at her house.  Of course, she did her best to be inhospitable while he was there, so eventually we decided on the occasional secret tryst at some other locale while she was otherwise occupied.  And in the interest of serenity we didn’t try to counter the silly tale she spread about how I had been “tricked” into staying with my husband even a third of the year; his fearsome reputation would’ve made countering her claims a difficult proposition at best.

So that’s my story; quite different from the version you heard, isn’t it?  I reckon it doesn’t matter; people believe what they want to believe, and some of them even seem wedded to the delusion that they can indefinitely avoid this riverbank, though none ever has since the dawn of the world.  I don’t need to convince them of their folly; like it or not, they’ll know soon enough.  And then they’ll cross on this ferry as we are about to, and come at last to the lovely lands beyond, which they have been taught all their lives to fear.  As for me, I’ll soon alight from this carriage into the waiting arms of my husband, and tonight we will dine together in celebration of my long-anticipated homecoming.

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Five years ago, in the introduction to “Concubine“, I wrote:

I must admit that I’m surprised I’ve been able to deliver [a new story] every month; I always used to say that unlike my dependable and constant Muse of Nonfiction, my Muse of Fiction was like a sulky girlfriend:  when she wanted me she demanded my undivided attention, but when she didn’t want me I couldn’t even get her on the phone.  But ever since “The Trick”, she has visited me without fail at least once per month, usually without my even having to beg her…

ClioI repeated the joke in the foreword to Ladies of the Night, and until last year it was true.  But as my available time shrank and my commitments increased, I found that inspiration often came more slowly, and I had to beg a lot more often.  Fewer of my stories were (in my own opinion) really inspired or especially memorable, and the ones that were revealed a lot more of my soul than was the norm before.  Several of the stories came to me literally hours before publication, then this past February I cheated by letting someone else tell a story, and last month I quietly and unceremoniously slipped another type of essay into the usual story slot.  But if I keep doing that y’all are going to notice, so here we are.  Some ideas were bouncing around my brain, but as of this writing none of them has gelled and I’m very tired and about to go and get myself a milkshake.  So what I’m thinking is, I’m going to take a brief hiatus from fiction; the next story I think of will be an exclusive for my new book, The Forms of Things Unknown, which I plan to start compiling this coming week.  I know this kind of sucks, but consider that I’ve had an almost unbroken run of one story per month for six years; that’s 72 stories in all.  That’s really very damned good; I don’t think many writers are that prolific.  I also don’t think my Muse has really returned to her old sulky ways; she’s probably just tired and wants a little vacation.  Or maybe she’s suffering from PMS, or thinks I’ve been neglecting her.  Maybe this is her way of getting me to do the book.  But one way or another, I’m sure she’ll be sending me inspiration again in short order, and I’ll soon be serving up new tales on a regular basis again.  And if not, it was a good thing while it lasted!

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None of woman born, coward or brave, can shun his destiny.  –  Homer, Iliad (III, 120-121)

If you’re unfamiliar with Aella, I strongly suggest you read the previous chapters in her story before proceeding with this one; they’re listed & linked in the introduction to last year’s episode.

Since I live alone, it was both startling and disorienting to be roused roughly from sleep by someone shaking me.  But when in response to my groggy queries, I heard a less-than-familiar voice say, “Wake up girl, for I have need of thee,” I sat bolt upright and strained my eyes to make out the figure looming over my bed in the dark.  The meager light filtering in from the front windows glinted upon metal, and I soon realized my nocturnal visitor was clad in ornate armor; she carried a helm under her arm and a sword with jeweled hilt hung at her side.

“Aella?” I asked.

“Show some respect, child,” she said gently.  “Though I am not wont to stand on ceremony, it would behoove thee to address an honored ancestor with something more than her common name.”

“I’m sorry,” I mumbled; “you did wake me up from a rather sound sleep.  Would ‘grandmother’ do?  We’ll be here all night if I have to list all the ‘greats’ which should precede it.”

She laughed, a strong but weary laugh that seemed to come from someplace deep inside her.  “Aye, it will do.  Dost thou always awaken so sluggishly?  What if enemies attacked in the night?”

“It would make little difference; my enemies are cowards who always attack with overwhelming force.  They fear a fair fight.”

She was not impressed.  “Any descendant of mine should be ready to at least give a good account of herself in battle.  Her enemies should long remember how dear a price they paid for their victory over her.”

“I’m sorry, honored grandmother.  Though I am a warrior in my own right, I’m afraid you would not recognize my battlefield as such.”

“So I am told.  Yet thou hast shown tremendous courage.”

“Well, that’s what some people call it.  It’s really just tremendous stubbornness.”

She laughed again.  “Then it is certain thou art of my blood, for my excess of pigheadedness was also lauded as courage both in my day and after it.”

“I’ve wanted to ask you about that for some time, but you’re not exactly easy to reach.  I’m guessing the legends about Amazons and Scythians settling in Galicia have a basis in fact?”

“Aye.  My son and his wife were unable to adapt to Amazon culture, and I was unwilling to let them return to Crete knowing full well I might never see them again.  So I recruited a group of colonists, Amazons and Scythians both, and we sailed toward the setting sun and settled north of Tartessos.”

“I seem to remember that you hated sailing.”

She shrugged.  “One does what one must.”

“Yes.  We all need to do things we hate and fear to accomplish the goals that are important to us.”

“Aye, child, that we do.  But make not the foolish error I did, of thinking that thy destiny is thine to command.  Thou hast a task to perform, and thy course was charted for thee by the blessed goddesses long before thy birth, even as mine was.  We are but the tools by which they accomplish their goals, which are not for the likes of us to divine.”

I replied quietly, “I like to think I have free will.”

She laughed once more, a soft chuckle tinged with pain.  “I, too, enjoyed that belief.”

“And what of Phaedra?” I asked, trying to change the subject.  “Did you ever see her again?”

“Nothing could have stopped me save the goddesses themselves; had I been told she was dead I would have battled my way down to the Styx to find her.  Her ships carried our colonists forth, and kept us supplied until my death.”

“I reckon loyalty runs in our bloodline, too.”  She nodded.  “Honored Grandmother, you said you were here tonight because you had need of me.”mounted Amazon

“Ah, that.  Well, truth be told, child, I’m here because thou hast need of me.”

“Oh.  Will the coming years be that difficult?”

“I am no soothsayer, granddaughter; I know not what lies in store for thee.  I know only that I was sent to remind thee of who and what thou art, to admonish thee not to forget the warrior blood that runs strong in thy veins, and to tell thee that though I lack the wisdom and learning to understand thy struggle, I am filled with pride for thy steadfastness and refusal to surrender. Thou hast done well, and I am certain thou wilt continue to do so.  Because if thou should dishonor my legacy by cowardice, I swear by our common ancestresses that I will return and beat thee to within a hairsbreadth of thy life.”

“Thank you, grandmother.  I think.”  She smiled, and laid her hand upon my shoulder, and then she was gone, leaving behind nothing but the weight of her millennia-long shadow upon me.

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Life is a sum of all your choices.  –  Albert Camus

1968 ImpalaHer sister’s phone call had plunged Liz into one of her periodic episodes of deep self-doubt.  While they had both gone to college, Mary had primarily used the experience as a means of finding a husband with prospects, while Liz had been inflamed by the spirit of women’s lib and decided she wanted a career of her own.  Mary had chosen well; her husband had just been made a full partner in his law firm, and they had a beautiful house and two newish cars.  They had two great kids and a third on the way, and it was obvious that they were still very devoted to one another.  And while Liz was doing OK and didn’t exactly regret her choices, they hadn’t made her either as happy or as wealthy as her sister seemed to be.  She still drove the dependable but aging ’68 Impala her father had given her when he bought his new Caprice a few years back, and insisted she didn’t really need a color television set.  And her rented house in a modest middle-class suburb had all the room she needed.

But now she had been offered a promotion and a big raise; one catch was that it required a move to the East Coast, and another, more serious one was that she wasn’t at all certain she could handle both the extra responsibility and a move to a strange city at the same time.  What if she made the wrong decision?  And which decision was the wrong one?  Staying here where she was comfortable but not really successful, or leaving her comfort zone in the hope of finding success?  What if she lost both comfort and success, and had to slink back home with her tail between her legs?  What if all this turmoil was the result of a poor decision in the first place, and she should’ve married Claude when he proposed?  She had heard through the grapevine he was doing nearly as well as her brother-in-law.  What if any decision she made now was wrong, because her previous decisions had been?  What if…

“May I have a cookie?”

The unexpected question startled Liz out of her ruminations; she turned to find a rather extraordinary little girl of perhaps seven standing outside of the open patio door.  She was dressed in soaking-wet blue jeans and a dirty T-shirt with a picture of Wonder Woman on it, and the state of her clothes and the fresh mud caked on her sneakers left little doubt as to how she had arrived in Liz’s backyard.

“Did you go into the drainage canal on purpose, or was it an accident?”

“An accident,” she said with a sheepish grin.  “I was trying to cross on the pipe and I slipped.”  The pipe in question was a conduit which crossed the canal from bank to bank, a few feet above the high water line; it was certainly wider than a tightrope, but Liz wouldn’t have felt comfortable trying to cross on it.

“I’m not sure I understand what that has to do with cookies.”

“Nothing, really,” the child stated matter-of-factly; “I just saw the package there so I figured it couldn’t hurt to ask.”

“Well, nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

“Yeah, my mommy says that all the time.  I’m not sure what it means, though.”

Liz set a plate full of cookies and a glass of milk down on the patio table.  “It means if you don’t try something in the first place, you have no possibility of succeeding at it.”

“So if I hadn’t asked for the cookies, there was no chance of getting them.”

Liz handed her a paper napkin, realizing immediately how silly that was given her current state. “Right, and if you don’t try to tightrope-walk on a pipe, you’ll never know whether you could’ve done it.”

“Yeah, but you also wouldn’t have any chance of falling in the mud.”

“Well, that wasn’t so bad, was it?  I mean, you’re filthy and you smell like a swamp – ” (the little girl giggled) ” – and your mom will probably scream at you, but you got some cookies out of it.”

“And a new friend.”

“You’re very sweet,” Liz said; “I think you’re just saying that because I gave you cookies.”

“No, really, you remind me of my mommy.”

“Oh, how so?”

“Well, you actually look a lot like her, and you’re about the same size, and you’re smart like she is.”

“I think you probably inherited that from her.”

“Maybe from both; my daddy’s very smart too.  He and mommy met in college.  Did you go to college?”

“Yes, I did.  I think you ought to go too, when you’re old enough.”

“TINA!” came a female voice from the other side of the canal.  “Come inside and get cleaned up before dinner!”

“I’m guessing that’s for you?”  The girl nodded.  “I hope I didn’t spoil your dinner.”cookies on a plate

“Nah, that was just like an appetizer.”

Liz laughed.  “What’s your mommy’s name?”

“Beth.”

“How strange; I’m called Liz.  Your mommy and I have the same name, Elizabeth.”

“Oh, yeah!  But it’s like y’all chose different parts of the name to go by.”

“It seems we made different choices in a lot of areas.  But that’s part of what makes life interesting.”

“Well, I should go before she gets mad.  Thank you for the cookies.”

“You’re welcome, Tina.”  And with that the child sprang up and went through the gap in the fence, and Liz stood up just in time to see her reach the other bank after crossing perfectly on the conduit.  She laughed a little as she heard Beth’s exclamations of dismay a minute later, then went back inside and picked up the phone.  “Mr. Perkins?  It’s Liz.  I’m sorry to bother you at home, but you did say to let you know as soon as I had made my decision.  I’m going to take that promotion.  Yes, thank you very much; we’ll discuss the particulars tomorrow.”

Then she walked back out on the patio, picked up the plate and ate the one remaining cookie.  Nothing ventured, nothing gained, she thought.  If you don’t reach for the cookies you’ll never know how they taste, and Liz had decided she wasn’t going to be afraid of a little mud.

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android phoneHelen was a methodical sort of person; she believed in a place for everything and everything in its place.  That’s not to say she was stuffy; far from it.  But her friends often gently teased her about the way she liked to have everything just so, and she had a system for everything it was possible to systematize.  Take her phone, for example; every different alert was a distinctly different sound, so that she could know exactly what was happening and gauge whether to respond to it or not.  The sound she had chosen for text messages was a knocking sound: a sharp knock knock knock meant a new text, and it was distinct enough that she could make it out even in a noisy environment.

Tonight, however, it wasn’t noisy; in fact, the sound startled her in the quiet room where she was beginning to grow a bit drowsy over her book.  She stole a look at the clock; 1:16 AM, which meant it was almost certainly Angela and she was almost certainly high as a kite.  She picked up the phone; it was indeed her best friend.

hey baby wassup-thinking of u

Her finger flew quickly over the screen: “Hi honey, having a good time tonight?

There was a longer-than-usual pause, then knock knock knock!  “Nah tonite sux, went out but evryplace was lame

So are you home safe?

Another really long pause, then finally knock knock knock! “Not yet

So where are you?

The intervals between her texts and the replies were maddeningly-long tonight; usually Angela was quite a fast texter.  But finally, after her screen had been dark for several minutes, it came again: knock knock knock!  “not sure

Not sure? WTF? How much have you had to drink?”  Again the interminable interval, so she sent another one: “Angela? Talk at me babe.

A short pause, then knock knock knock!  “Alnost none just a crapy weak margarita

Then how can you not know where you are? Did some loser strand you somewhere?

She was just about to probe the silence with another text when knock knock knock! “yah

Oh, damn, sweets, you need to stop dating these assholes. Why don’t you just Uber home?

Almost ten minutes elapsed before the next knock knock knock!  “cant

Angela must’ve been much drunker than she was telling…maybe someone had drugged her drink?  “Honey, please ask somebody where you are or look at Google Maps and give me the address. I’ll come get you.

It wasn’t quite so long this time before the knock knock knock!  “no ill come there

Helen didn’t like the idea of one of her friend’s invariably-useless boyfriends having her address, but she was too worried at this point to care.  “Sure, baby, come on over.

There was no immediate acknowledgement, and Helen was just about to text again when the phone actually rang; it was the ringtone assigned to Angela’s sister Leigh.  “Hello, Leigh?  Do you know where your sister is?”

The voice on the other end sounded strained and distorted.  “Oh, Helen, I…I’m so sorry.  I don’t know how to tell you this…Angela’s dead.”

“That’s not fucking funny, Leigh!”

“Funny?  Of course it isn’t fucking funny!  She was in a fucking wreck; the cops say her boyfriend was drunk!”

Helen felt as though her brain was numb.  “Are…are you sure?”

“Yes I’m sure, I’m at the hospital now but there was nothing they could do.  She was already dead when the paramedics got there.”

“But…how long ago did this happen?”

“About an hour ago, maybe quarter after one.”  This time the long silence was on Helen’s end.  “Helen? Are you there?”

“Yeah, I…Leigh, some jerk has been texting me from Angela’s phone; they must’ve picked it up right after the accident, or else she left it in a bar or something.”

“What are you talking about?  I have her phone right here. It was in her purse, and I think the battery’s dead.”

“You have…but…Leigh…I…”

knock knock knock!

“Helen?  Sweetheart, if you want to come down here with me…”

knock knock knock!

“Helen, please say something!  If you don’t think you can drive I’ll send Todd.”

knock knock knock!

But Helen’s voice was frozen in her throat, and the knocking wasn’t coming from her phone.

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mystery powderOliver poked at the powder in the little tin with a small metal scoop.  It had seemed ivory-colored in the shop, but under the strong light of his desk lamp it actually seemed to have a kind of orange tinge, and it was a bit clumpy and mealy.  Since it was neither fine nor powdery he risked a gentle sniff, and found its smell rather pungent and earthy, with notes like spoiled meat.  It didn’t much remind him of any other drug he’d ever taken, but that was to be expected because it was supposed to be unlike anything else he’d ever taken; in fact, it wasn’t like any drug most people had ever taken, and because neither the cops nor the news media had heard of it yet, it wasn’t even illegal.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t exactly easy to get, either; this small pile of powder, enough for only three doses from what the old man at the Chinese apothecary had told him, had cost him $300, and it would be months before the old man could get any more.  He helpfully explained that it came from a remote part of the Xinjiang region and had to go by way of certain parties in Hong Kong because, while it was not technically banned, Beijing frowned on its exportation.

After weighing the mass on a small digital scale, he used the scoop to divide it into three equal-seeming piles, then weighed each again and measured one into a waxed-paper bindle; he returned the second directly into the tin and tucked the bindle in beside it, then closed the lid and secreted the precious package in the box where he kept his stash.  He then dumped the remaining measure into a tumbler, filled it halfway with Passiona, swirled it around until he was reasonably sure it had all dissolved, and then downed the lot as quickly as possible.  It tasted terrible, but the rest of the soft drink in the can quickly alleviated that; then all there was left was to wait.

As previously agreed, he texted Nick that he had started the experiment; his friend was the perfect ground control because while he himself never used any drug stronger than a good stout, he had logged hundreds of hours with friends using every substance imaginable, and could always be counted on to take care of whatever problems might arise.  He then closed the window against the chilly July evening, changed into sweat pants and fiddled around with his music player for a while, finally settling on a program of baroque chamber music that he felt would set the right mood.  The clock said it had been 35 minutes since he had dosed, so he wrote the details in a little notebook and then settled back to listen to the music.

Finally, he began to feel some mild physical symptoms; a little restlessness, some lack of feeling in the extremities, an odd sort of bloatiness in the face, a bit of nausea.  He wrote the sensations down and texted to Nick, who said he’d be over in an hour or so, and would Oliver like anything from Red Rooster?  Oliver decided against it; the nausea might pass, but it could get much worse, as the restlessness already was.

About 75 minutes after downing the drug, the first of the visual effects appeared: drifting lazily into his field of view from the general direction of the kitchen was something very like a lavender paramecium about the size of his shoe.  It just gently floated across the room in a generally-northerly direction, silently undulating its cilia; even for an experienced drug user like him, it was a pretty striking sight.  And since nothing else had materialized as of yet, he decided to get up and follow it; he was a little unsteady on his feet, but that was more due to the fact that he couldn’t feel them than to anything else.  Slipping his phone into his jacket pocket, he stumbled into the next room just in time to see the thing go through the closed window; as in, right through the shade and glass, like a ghost.

microbial menagerieHe was about to follow it outside when he realized he was barefooted; he quickly pulled on his sandshoes where he’d left them beside the door and hastened outside, only to immediately lose interest in the intruder as he took in the full vista before him.  All around his house, all over the grass and trees and lamposts and parked cars, slid and floated and bounced and hopped and swam innumerable creatures of every description imaginable.  Many were like the protozoans one might see in a drop of pond water under a microscope; others were like masses of crystals that grew rapidly in one direction while vanishing from the other; some were like living flows of liquid or tiny suns, and a few were like earthly creatures he knew, only transparent and silent.  None of the alien things seemed even aware of his presence, and while the phantom animals seemed to sense him, they also seemed entirely uninterested in him.

He slowly walked down the street, taking it all in; he saw a few human shapes, too, but unlike the other creatures they appeared to actively avoid him.  Since it was early, there was still considerable traffic on the main street; the faces of the car’s occupants looked strange and somehow distorted, though he couldn’t be sure through the moving window-glass due to shifting reflections.  It was enough to pique his curiosity, though, so he decided to wander down to the shops to take a look at the people more closely.  Though the numbness in his feet and hands had spread up the limbs, they still responded more or less normally, and it was worth the risk of stumbling to see what there was to see; at worst, people would think him drunk.

The first place he reached was a little kebab shop that always did brisk business even on weekday evenings, and he was soon glad some sense of caution prompted him to look through the glass before entering; the shop was swarming with a veritable menagerie of monsters.  Oh, some of them looked human enough, but others looked like apes, reptiles or gigantic insects, and a few were so indescribably hideous he found himself unable to retain his composure.  He had always been able to talk himself down from bad trips before, but this time he was unable to convince himself that what he saw was only in his mind.  He lost control of his legs entirely and fell down upon the pavement, shaking and crying; he was aware that people emerging from the shop were staring at him and whispering, but he was too frightened to move until he heard a gentle voice asking, “Can we be of help, son?”

He looked up to see a face of almost unearthly beauty, strong and wise and benevolent; another of much the same type hovered nearby, and he heard the latter say, “Ian, I think I know this young man; he lives in the building down at the corner, don’t you love?”

Ollie was sure he’d never met these two angels before, but he instantly trusted them; no ill intent could possibly lurk behind such visages. “Yes’m.”

“What’s your name, son?”

“Oliver, sir.  My friends call me Ollie.”

“Well, Ollie, you just let us help you up, and we’ll get you home so you can sleep it off, alright?”

He couldn’t feel their hands on him at all, but he could see them, and he also saw the multiplicity of wings they spread above and around him, shielding his eyes from the sight of the horrors that had collected on the sidewalk to gawk at him.  He decided it was best to fix his gaze on his legs, since he could no longer feel them at all; still, they obeyed his commands and, with the help of his angelic guides, he was able to walk the several blocks back to his own place.

“Ollie!  What happened to you?”  He had rarely been as happy to hear anything as he was to hear Nick’s familiar, friendly tones conversing with his two rescuers; the man was explaining where they had found him while the woman was getting him settled on the couch and asking if he wanted a cup of tea.

“No ma’am, I think I had best just close my eyes and try to sleep this off.”

“Well, you take care dear, and perhaps you ought not to try anymore of whatever it was you tried tonight, yes?”

A few minutes later they were gone; Ollie heard Nick promising them he would stay the night to watch over him, and thanking them again for their kindness.  The door closed, and he sat down in the chair.  “Bloody hell, mate, but you gave me a scare!  You look awful, like you’ve seen a ghost!”

“That’s exactly what I have done,” croaked Ollie, “hordes of ’em.  That’s what this drug does.”

“Howzat?”

“This stuff opens the organs of metaphysical perception, and allows the user to see spiritual beings.  Ghosts, spirits, disembodied ectoplasmic entities, the lot.  That much I expected; what I didn’t realize was that I’d be able to see people’s souls, and that most of them wouldn’t be what we think of as human.”

“So, they’re like animals and such?”

“More like monsters, though those two people who brought me home were like angels.”True Face of Nick

“What about me?  What do I look like?”

Ollie opened his eyes and looked toward his friend, and immediately started crying; Nick appeared to be a horrible fungoid mass crowned with undulating tentacles, bereft of anything like a face.  He instantly shut his eyes again, but was so choked with sobs he couldn’t speak.

Nick let out a whistle.  “That bad?”  Ollie nodded.  “Well, you know it’s still me, yeah?”  He nodded again.  “Is there anything I can do?”

“I feel sick.  Would you help me to the lavatory?”  He couldn’t bear to look at Nick again, so he just stared straight ahead while he was helped down the hall; once inside he collapsed to the floor in front of the toilet and chundered for several minutes, praying that at least some of the awful stuff would be purged from his body in the process.  Finally the nausea subsided, and he pulled himself up to the basin, running cold water to rinse his mouth and splash his face.  He then rose and opened his eyes, and began to shriek as he beheld the head of a gigantic reddish-black beetle staring back at him from the mirror.

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

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Mike Siegel has been a regular and faithful reader of this blog for at least five years, and has on numerous occasions assisted me with scientific or other issues.  See, he’s a professional astronomer and a blogger himself, and now he’s a fiction writer as well; last week, he self-published his first novel through Kindle Direct Publishing. The book is entitled The Water Lily Pond after the series of Monet paintings that inspired it.  He synopsizes it thusly: “Many decades in the future, medical science has made aging a thing of the past.  Painter Walter Winston, at age 128, finds himself dying from simply being exhausted from life.  He sets off on a journey to revisit the places he’s lived, trying to rediscover himself, his life and the people who made it worth living.  It’s science fiction, yes.  But it’s not really about science.  It’s about time and old age and regret and art…The two passages below take place after Walter’s wife has died. Having been alone for a long time and wanting to avoid complications, he occasionally hires an escort.  On at least one occasion, a university hosting his lecture hired an escort for him.  The first passage concerns the latter“:

The last time he’d been in a hotel room identical to this one he had not been alone. She was a pretty girl from Ecuador whom the University had arranged for him. He was a hundred years older than her. They had lain in bed after it was done — the school had generously paid for the entire night. He thought of David and Abishag in the Americo painting. They had sent her to warm him.

Her cigarette smoke made lazy curls on the ceiling as she talked to him. She was certainly the smartest girl he’d ever had – she spoke four languages and was earning her degree from UCLA in astronautics. She spoke of a future on the Earth-Moon run.

“Why do you do this, then?” he’d asked, shocked.

She stared at him for a moment then giggled.

“You’re so old-fashioned.”

“I’m so old!”

“It’s endearing. I think the oldest man I’d been with before you was … 90?  95? He wasn’t quite as prudent.”

“You didn’t answer the question.”

She rolled over, her black hair spilling onto the white pillow like a Pollock painting, her hip making a steep curve beneath the sheets like a Reubens. It made him feel a lot younger than 125 to look at her and to touch her.

“I enjoy it. It’s that simple. The money’s great. I certainly wouldn’t do it for free.  But mainly I enjoy it. Not the act, per se. I enjoy the people.  I always get high-class clients.  Like famous artists,” she said, poking him in the belly.

He sank against the pillow, wondering if he was the only person on Earth old enough to see any stigma in her job.

“Do you remember everyone you’ve ever been with?” she asked. “After …”

“After all this time?” He grinned and nodded. “Sometimes it takes a while, but I do. Not that I’ve been with that many.

“It’s not just women I’ve been with that I remember. I can remember women I’ve wanted and never had. I can still remember a girl I passed on the street a century ago. She had the deepest eyes I’d ever seen. A short white skirt and a green blouse. She’s probably been dead half a century; certainly never knew my name or who I was. And yet I think about her. I can still see the fabric of the blouse clinging to her body.”

She leaned over and kissed him.  “You should have painted her.”

“I did.”

This next passage is from a bit later in the book and references the time Walter lived in the worst part of Harlem in the 1980’s as a struggling artist.

He had never hired a professional before Sarah was gone.  Even in his loneliest nights in Harlem, shortly after his marriage with Anna had collapsed, when he could hear the streetwalkers and their clients in the alleys and crack houses of the neighborhood; when he couldn’t walk to and from home without at least a couple of them asking if he wanted a date.  It had never really crossed his mind.

“They didn’t repel me,” he told Sarah once.  “I got to know some of them over time.   Most of them were nice enough and a couple even knew about my art.  I even drew inspiration from them for one or two paintings.”

“They were in the pentaptych,” said Sarah.

“One was.  A woman who doggedly worked a corner near me for almost a decade.  Put her kid through school on it.  But I just wasn’t interested in what they were offering.”

It was Chuck who talked him into it.  Chuck, who knew that the side of the industry Walter had seen in King’s Slate was the bad part of a much larger enterprise.

“You should come with me to Vegas,” he said one night at the lake, three years after Sarah had died.  There had been an awkward discussion over dinner about whether Walter should get “out there” or not. Now he and Chuck were on the dock, in the darkness.

“Or up to Toronto.  Or over to Paris.  Or Bucharest.  Or anywhere.  Any sophisticated city is going to have professionals – talented, beautiful.  Most places, you wouldn’t even be breaking the law anymore.”

Walter shifted uncomfortably in his deck chair.  The water lapped quietly under the dock.

“Look, I know how you were raised.  But at our age … do you really want to date?  Do you want to go through that?  Especially with two grandchildren and another on the way?  What are you going to do if you meet someone?  Move away?  Leave little Lucia all by herself?  This is a way to not be alone but not have complications.”

“I just can’t see myself doing that,” said Walter.  “Paying someone to pretend to be attracted to me?  It’s not like there’s a shortage of art fans or anything, if meaningless sex was what I wanted.”

“But a professional won’t stalk you.  She won’t want to get pregnant.  She won’t tell everyone about it.  And it’s not just sex.  Sometimes it’s not even sex.  I hired a woman in Moscow to basically go to the Bolshoi with me.”

“Can we just let it go?”

Chuck shrugged.  “As you wish.  But men our age have needs.  Yours will get the better of you at some point.  Less risk if it’s a professional than an amateur.”

In the end, Chuck was right.  He had been surprised that it wasn’t the sex itself that made him happy.  It was the touch of skin, the rustle of sheets, the play of light on a naked body.  It was the feeling, however faintly, of being back in those sepia and ash-colored days when he and Sarah or Juliette or Anna or Linda would lie in a warm bed and just enjoy not being alone.

“Intimacy,” said Chuck.  “Companionship.  Remember Abishag.”

It wasn’t often – a few times a year, maybe.  But it was enough to get through the previous four decades.

Mike writes, “I didn’t set out to reference sex work in my novel.  It just seemed like what the character would do, given his arc, and I saw no reason to shy away from it.  Sex work is a part of our world and will continue to be a part of our world long into the future. There’s no point in pretending it doesn’t exist.”  Mike is a great guy, an ally of sex workers and a friend; if you enjoyed these excerpts, you really ought to consider buying his book.  Pretty please?

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