Returning from a Halloween party, I pass a large cemetery. My home is opposite the stone arch and iron gates. About to cross the road, the haunting notes from a harmonica reverberate on the cold night air.
I play guitar and harmonica for a blues band—the traditional Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker blues, yet I stand, mesmerized by the music until the last haunting notes die away. I would give anything to play half as well. I can bend notes producing the blues wail and play a haunting reverb, but a decent player, like this one tonight, can play a full chromatic scale on a ten-note harp.
Thus inspired, I practice every night for a full year, to improve my technique while listening at the open widow for a repeat performance from this mysterious musician. There is only the silence of the tombs backed by the hum of traffic…
…until the last night in October.
At around midnight, the quavering strains of sound, again, send shivers down my spine raising hairs on my neck.
Entering the cemetery, howling tones drift on the swirling autumn breeze, first to my left, then to my right. I follow the sound along winding paths between sepulchers, tombs and graves, past stone angels and ancient sarcophagi. Closer until, I know, around the next bend I will see my mysterious musician.
Then the notes stop. The final chord fades, leaving only the rustling whisper of falling leaves. I look all around, but not a soul can I see.
Re-invigorated to achieve perfection, I practice harder and longer throughout the following days. Another year passes while I yearn to hear again my musical mentor. I believe my playing becomes almost passable during this time.
All Hallows Eve, I am waiting, listening, expectant. Then I hear—music. Taking my blues harp, I again cross the road into the cemetery, raise the instrument to my lips and play the opening notes of a haunting riff I composed a few weeks ago. The mystery musician pauses, listening. Then he returns an answering riff. I follow his notes with an answer of my own, while moving among the tombs and graves. Closer I approach as we exchange arpeggios. My rendition reaches its climax; I wait for his answer. He responds.
I step into a small, moonlit clearing among willow and yew trees. No one is there. Confused, I wait as the last notes die away. The only thing I see is a grave marked with a wooden cross.
There is a name engraved in the wood. Unable to read, I stoop and then kneel to stare at the letters. I cannot believe my eyes. It is a name I know so well. The engraved letters are the same as those I use when writing my own. The date of birth is also the same as mine. I am horrified. I read on to the date of the mysterious harmonica player’s death—31 October, three years ago to this very day.
©2012 Robert A. Read.
My submission for week 58, Prompt :– Steampunk. Quite a short one this week. 1500 words.
This is the New Age of Steam. All resources of fossil fuels were depleted three centuries ago, leading to anarchy against the world government of that time, the original New World Order, whose monopoly of all sources of energy fuelled the uprising and the resulting Armageddon.
So absorbed in their own war was the human race, they were not even aware of the alien invaders. No one questioned where the invaders came from. Now, no one even cares. Ninety-five percent of the humans were exterminated to, “protect the ecosystem of the planet,” the invaders said. Many of the survivors, like me, were cybernetically modified to serve our alien overlords. The remaining humans inhabit the ruined cities of several islands in the Pacific ocean, once called Zealand.
The aliens brought with them their own technology. I am unsure of detail, but energy is derived through fusion reactors using water as fuel. The hydrogen gas is stripped from the water then, somehow, converted into helium. Here is the reason we call this the New Steam Age. The only waste products are more water and oxygen gas.
I am a musician, my main function is to entertain. I do not play a musical instrument of the type depicted in the pre-geddon archives. Our alien masters have little appreciation for rhythm and melody. They have no audio receptors – ears, as humans do. They communicate with thought, telepathically. They are aware, however, of the vast archives of audio recordings made by humans in the past. They appreciate these recordings when they are used to produce visual displays, which is the work for which I was engineered. I feed the audio output to modulate the high frequency oscillations of high tension, Tesla voltage generators. These produce up to a million volts creating dancing arcs of multi-coloured lightning in a darkened arena. For those of us who can hear sound, the audio content of the modulation is reproduced quite accurately although noticeably distorted by the crackle of high-voltage ionised air.
As you can imagine,working with such high voltages can be hazardous. The ionizing arcs appear to be randomly generated around the high voltage toroidal coil that sits on top of the Tesla device. One false move and I could be frazzled like a barbecued pig.
There is, however, a subtle correlation between the high energy arcing and the tone and tempo of the music. A deep appreciation and understanding of the beat is needed to accurately predict the position and intensity of the next strike. Having listened carefully to the recording for several hours, I believe I have enough understanding to move among the voltage generators unscathed. To be certain, I wear a thick suit of insulating fibre which is coated with an aluminium mesh. The mesh is connected via a tether to an earthing plane mapped around the Teslas where the arcing is directed. My eyes are covered with a hardened one-way lens that limits the intensity of the blinding flashes of brilliance while still allowing me the ability to see clearly.
For tonight’s performance, I have chosen a recording of The Brandenburg Concerto by ELP. I am uncertain whether ELP is the composer or the performer, but such information would be irrelevant to my audience. The tempo of the music is slower than I normally choose, and should produce a vivid display predominantly in reds and blues.
As I step into the arena, I see additional entertainment has been provided for the evening. In the centre, surrounded by the five Tesla generators stands a Faraday cage. Like my suit, it is grounded to provide a safe haven for the occupants, three humans, young adults, two male and one female. All are naked.
I am surprised how, in the 260 years since my engineered mutation, and if these three are typical of their race, the appearance of humans has degenerated. In stature, they are around one and a half metres, and pathetically under-nourished. They all have pale, almost translucent skin with a few irregular, straggling clumps of light hair or fur. The hair on their heads is longer, and so blond it is almost white. They all have blue eyes, and look so similar that they could be blood related. I suspect their limited numbers has resulted in too much inbreeding.
Perhaps they recognize me as once being human. They seem to be trying to communicate, holding out their hands and turning faces in an imploring manner. But their speech patterns are little more than grunts, growls and whines, as if they no longer have intelligible language.
According to my program notes for the evening, they were captured while trying to escape from their island home. Tonight they will die. As the performance begins, the cage will be hoisted clear leaving them vulnerable to the electric discharge. If they can negotiate their way to the exit from the arena without being zapped, they win their freedom. In my experience, no one has ever gotten close to freedom.
The opening bars of music set a ponderous tone to the ambience in the arena. Awesome flashes of light leap from the flattened balls at the top of the towers to the metal floor. The three figures in the cage huddle together, cowering in terror from the sizzling, electric blast.
After two minutes, the locking bolts on a time release disengage. The cage falls apart as the frame is whisked away. With the prisoners’ only protection gone, the lightning bolts move close enough to sear flesh. In blind panic, the first, a male, tries to run. He covers no more than five strides before a vivid blue flash engulfs him. An arm and part of one leg are incinerated. Still alive, he writhes for a few moments on the steel floor before another strike leaves him as a burning husk of blackened cinder.
The remaining two watch in apparent horror, before they both try to flee in the opposite direction. The second male is slightly ahead of the female when a deep red lightning bolt hits him in the chest. At the same moment, the female figure leaps sideways to avoid the flash as if she knows of its imminent arrival. She pauses, crouching, looking about as the upper half of the male body is instantly vaporised. His trunk and legs kick a few times while orange flames and black smoke rise from the floor. The female watches, her mouth opening and closing as if shocked by the devastation. Then she leaps again before a bright red ball of flame strikes the area she has just vacated.
Crouching again, her head is cocked on one side. She must be listening to the music. She leaps sideways as another blue bolt strikes the metal. From side to side she dances, evading the erratic discharges. She makes no attempt to escape from the arena. Her only concern seems to be in avoiding death. Several times she receives minor burns from secondary strikes that fluctuate through ionised air after the main pulse has earthed itself. The flesh on her arms, shoulders and back is singed. I can see the skin bubbling, blistering. Her limbs, for a few moments, go rigid from the electrical shock of ten to fifteen thousand volts. She is in pain but recovers to continue dancing.
Her hair flies wildly across her face as she evades another blast. She seems to be tiring. I cannot see her lasting more than a couple of minutes longer. Yet, amazingly she does. As the final chords die away, and the last, blinding flash diminishes she sprawls on the metal surface. The upper part of her body heaves as she drags the ionised air into her lungs. I believe she is sobbing from the exertion, or perhaps from the relief that the ordeal is over. She is soaked with perspiration that drips and puddles on the floor.
I feel sensations in my body that have remained unrecognised through most of my life. I remember, it was once called compassion. It can be nothing more. The technicians made certain that my reproductive abilities and urges were eradicated during the surgery.
I propose to take this white haired female back to my residential complex. I can construct a special cage for her, look after her, feed her. I remember how once, centuries ago, as a child, my parents gave me a kitten. It grew into a beautiful, graceful feline animal. My new pet brings back memories of the wonderful innocence of that time. I wonder, what name I should give her?
Auhor’s note 1:
Not sure if Emerson, Lake and Palmer ever recorded Brandenburg Concerto. Keith Emerson did with his group, The Nice.
Auhor’s note 2:
Always wanted to build a Tesla Coil. It is possible to modulate them with an audio signal too, as this video shows. Awesome! This is Bach’s Toccata & Fugue in D Minor played on Tesla Coils.
© 2012. Robert A. Read
My Friday Frights submission for the Issue 57 prompt – Telekinesis. This story is around 2300 words. More fun at the expense of my dear neighbours. Continues from my Dinner Party Story, She Wasn’t Invited.
My first and, I expected, my last dinner party here in France, was a disaster of epic proportions. All went well until an apparition in the form of a child, a girl of eight or nine years appeared on the staircase and scared the bejesus out of my guests. Without exception, they fled from the house leaving me to confront the nightmare alone.
Actually, it was not so much of a nightmare. I knew the house was haunted. It began, at least I first became aware of a ghostly presence, when, whilst digging to clear brambles from an area of garden, I unearthed a human skull. I realise I should have reported the find to the local Gendarme, but this being France… The skull had obviously been in the ground a very long time and I could not see them being overly keen to investigate a possible murder of so long ago. Besides, I thought it might look good, well, a talking point at least, if displayed in a glass cabinet under an eerie green light.
The night I first brought it into the house was the night I first saw the young woman to whom the bones had belonged. Aware of the paranormal for as long as I remember, I have no fear of ghosts and, after an initial moment of embarrassment on my part for desecrating her grave, we began what I think many people would see as a bizarre relationship. Her name, when she was alive, was Monique, a beautiful name that I will always refer to her by.
She liked my idea for the display of her remains as it gave her a strong physical link with this house. She wanted to stay and, to be honest, I enjoy her company. I should add here, our relationship is not sexual. No matter what romantic fiction writers tell you, physical sex with a ghost is not possible. For an apparition to even remain visible, it must draw energy in the form of heat from the physical plane. This is why there is such a noticeable drop in temperature during paranormal activity. No matter how stunning your ghost appears, I challenge any man to maintain his libido when she feels like a block of ice to his touch.
Anyway, getting back to the dinner party, I made no mention of hauntings to my guests before they arrived. I really did not think they would believe me. It never occurred to me that Monique might get upset at not being invited and make an appearance with such devastating effect. Monique and I had a long talk later that evening, when I explained that most living people do not understand ghosts the way I do and, as I thought she understood that, she would know why I could not invite her. Admittedly, I should have told her about the dinner, but as it’s not every day she visits me, and I am so pleased to see her when she does, it had completely slipped from my mind.
This pacified Monique, but I was uncertain how I should explain to the neighbours I had invited. I considered one idea: that being a writer of horror stories, it had been an experiment to see their reactions and my ghost was the daughter of a friend made up and dressed to look scary. Unfortunately, her mother, who had been upstairs all evening with her, had got a little carried away and made her look too realistic.
In fact, I didn’t need to go to such measures. Mid-morning the next day, I was disturbed from some writing by a knock at the door. It was Michelle who had been the first to see Monique on the stairs.
“I am so sorry that we all rushed away leaving you alone,” she said. “I expected to find you this morning a white haired, gibbering wreck of a man. Did you realize the house was haunted?”
“Well, as it happens…”
“I’m sure you didn’t.” She answered for me before I could admit I did. “I thought I could sense a lurking evil in the house as soon as we came in.”
I am certain I looked at her in surprise. Monique has never struck me as being evil. I know she worked as a prostitute before her murder by a deranged psychopath who believed he was, “doing God’s will by cleaning the scum from the streets.” Monique’s words, not mine. I also know she has a certain sense of humour in an un-deadpan sort of way. But evil… She bears no grudge, even against the man who ended her life.
Michelle continued, “I’d like to bring some friends over this evening. I know they can help you.”
“It’s okay…” I tried to stop her but she was not listening.
“Would nine be all right?” She glanced beyond me into the room, perhaps as if expecting to see a winged demonic presence on the carpet. “Well, nine it is then. Bye for now, and please don’t worry.” She turned and almost ran from the house to her waiting car.
I tried to call Monique, but it is not as if I could pick up a phone, so whether she got my message or not, I had no way of knowing.
At a quarter-past nine, I began to suspect Michelle had been unable to arrange the “help” she promised. I started to feel a sense of relief until there was a knock at the door. Michelle with her husband Guillom, a plump woman who appeared to be in her late forties, with almost flame red hair, and a thin, elderly man in the attire of a priest stood waiting on the step.
The moment the door was open sufficiently, Michelle made her apologies. “I am so sorry we’re late, but I didn’t realize Father DuBois needed to make so many preparations.”
“You’d be surprised how long it takes to get holy water.” Guillom was smirking as he added his contribution.
Father Dubois looked more serious. “My apologies, but it’s not just a question of turning on a tap and filling a flask.”
“And this is Odette.” Michelle indicated to the red haired woman. “She is a psychic.”
The woman bustled forward until her presence seemed overwhelming. Perhaps it was the red hair, or perhaps the bright orange dress. I felt dazzled.
“We’ve already met,” I said.
Odette stopped abruptly. She looked bemused. “I think you are mistaken.”
“Not this life,” I added. “Paris? 1790? The French Revolution.” I have no idea if I was correct, but three of my four guests stared at me in awe.
“So, you believe in reincarnation?”
I had assumed The priest would not. Such a concept is not part of the Catholic creed. “Of course Father,” I replied. “I’ve seen too much evidence not to be certain.”
Odette looked deflated. “I think… maybe I do remember.” She sounded very hesitant. One up to me, I thought.
“You’d better come in,” I continued holding the door open for them to enter.
Odette, having pushed herself to the front was the first to enter. As she reached the middle of the lounge, she clutched at her chest with both hands and her knees buckled. I thought she was about to collapse; heart attack or something similar.
Michelle grabbed her arm for support before I could move. “Whatever is the matter?”
“I feel it. That sense of foreboding. That evil presence you told me about. I feel it, here in this very room. It’s so strong, so powerful, so overwhelmingly evil.”
A large black ball of indistinguishable form suddenly appeared in the corner of the room, flew across the carpet and out through the open door. Everyone jumped, Michelle screamed and the priest made the sign of the cross with one hand.
I tried to stop laughing. “It’s all right. That was only one of my black cats. You scared her.”
How many cats do you have? The priest asked. I would swear his voice had developed a nervous quaver.
“Three black and one silver-grey. I think the others are out at the moment.” I turned to Odette. I intended asking if the “evil” presence was still in the room now the cat had gone, until I realised she had fainted. I went into the kitchen for some water as Michelle tried to revive her.
As I turned the tap, I felt a snigger of amusement. Monique?
I could not see her but sensed her presence. Monique and I have a wonderful system of communication. She speaks no English, and my French is very limited, but as a spirit, she is totally telepathic. We communicate with pure thought, with sensation, emotion, feelings. She translates my sensations into French, while I translate hers into English. The thoughts are the same; it is only the symbols, the words we use to convey those thoughts that vary from language to language. If one of us thinks of an apple, which is the word symbol I use, Monique sees the same fruit but she knows it as “un pomme.” It is perfect. There is no chance of any misunderstanding.
I realized at that moment, we also had the ability to talk with none of the others overhearing us. I’m so glad you’re here Monique. I couldn’t stop them. I hope they don’t really exorcize you.
I don’t think they can. SHE, is a charlatan. I assumed Monique was referring to Odette.
I thought you would be more concerned about the priest. With his talk of holy water, he had me worried.
If we were religious fanatics, maybe. But neither of us believe in a god, do we?
That was true.
I returned to the lounge with the water. Michelle and Guillom had Odette sitting in a straight-backed chair beside the dining table. Placing the glass on the table beside her, I said, “If you want to call off tonight…”
“We wouldn’t dream of it.” Michelle seemed to have taken on the roll of spokesperson for the group. “You must have been living through hell these past years.”
“Not at all!” I felt it was time I explained before they got carried away with their hocus-pocus. “I’ve always known this house is haunted. A young woman by the name of Monique who was murdered here around fifty years ago. She doesn’t always haunt the house as a nine-year old child. I understand she was seventeen when she died. She can appear as any age she experienced in life, up until the moment she died. She believed a nine-year old would have the most sensational effect among those she wanted to scare. I should have warned you before last night, but, to be honest, I didn’t think you would believe.” I decided to make no mention of the skull sitting in a box beside the computer in the room I use as a study.
I turned to Michelle and Odette. “I don’t know why you should think she is evil. She can exude an air of sadness, melancholy at times, but evil? Never to me. She has given me some wonderful inspiration for stories. I see her as my muse.”
A snort of derision from the priest drew my attention back to him. “Then she has seduced you with her lies. This is exactly the way God’s word describes the behaviour of demonic entities. We are expressly forbidden in the Holy Bible to have any contact. To prove to you the demon’s true nature, I will summon her in the name of Our Lord Jesus Christ, to appear before us in her true form.”
I was not sure why he felt he needed to speak in such a loud voice. Far more quietly I said, “There is no need for summoning, father. She is standing right behind you.”
The look on his face was priceless as he spun around. Of course, he could not see her. I was aware of no more than the faintest glow of ethereal light.
“Would you please be good enough to show yourself in your true form Monique?” Even when speaking to the dead, it is considerate to be polite. I asked the question aloud only for the benefit of the living. I felt the sudden drop in temperature from the warmth of the summer night.
I guessed how she would show herself: the way she looked, the moments before she was murdered. Many times has she appeared to me in such a form, she knows it excites me. I was not disappointed. I think the priest was shocked. The two women definitely were. She stood, a glowing vision, completely naked. To me, she looked more like an angel than a demon.
The events that followed, I was not expecting. Father DuBois pulled a crucifix from an inside pocket of his cassock, thrusting it toward Monique. The electric lights in the room were suddenly extinguished. There was a loud thud from the table behind me. I think both women shrieked. I half turned, catching site of the skull now resting in the centre of the table. It still glowed from the eerie green light, although there was no light visible. The priest yelled something in French and unprintable. I looked back to see the crucifix glowing redder than Odette’s hair. He dropped the cross from where it lay, smouldering on the carpet. The smell of singed flesh mixed with burning carpet-pile reminded me of sulphur and brimstone.
The final straw was the loud, demonic chuckle that came from the skull. Four figures, including a badly shaken priest fled from the house.
I turned to Monique. That was amazing. I didn’t know you could do telekinesis.
There was a strange, almost frightened look in her eyes. It wasn’t me,she whispered.
© 2012. Robert A. Read
This is the first dinner party I’ve held in this house. Although I’ve dwelt here for several years, my contact with neighbours, until now, has been minimal. Well, not only am I a foreigner in their country, but I’m a writer, and as an author of stories macabre in the horror genre, I am entitled to a little eccentricity.
Then last year, with the arrival of new neighbours, things changed. Around the same age as me, they also were not of this country. We found we had many things in common, such as tastes in music, art and entertainment. After being invited to many dinner parties they have organised and from whence, I was introduced to many of the neighbours I previously shunned, I realized I had become accepted in the community. Over the past few months, I have received several invitations to visit the homes of these people for a meal. Recently, I have been made to feel uncomfortable that none of them have ever visited my home.
I made all the excuses I could think of, my kitchen skills are non-existent; living alone, the house is a mess; the cats are likely to maul strangers and I will not be held responsible. All my motives were scorned. For this reason, I decided on this little soiree. Not intended as a big celebration I have invited six of those inhabiting homes of closest proximity.
My three black cats have taken exception to the intrusion and decided on their own night out. I suspect there is a feline party in progress in one of the barns adjoining my property.
I am sitting at the head of the table for easier access to the kitchen from where I can serve the food to my guests. To my left and facing the staircase to the upper floor are Michelle and her husband Guillom, and Nicole. The other three guests have their backs to the stairs.
The music is playing at reduced volume through the speakers in the room, a little haunting music from bands like Nox Arcania.. Conversation ebbs and flows as the effect of the wine loosens tongues. I have just served the main course, I thought something traditionally English, a cottage pie made to my own recipe, which includes mushrooms, red wine, sour cream and English cheese. At the first taste, and to my utmost surprise, they all compliment me on my cooking.
As they begin eating, Michelle nudges my arm. “I didn’t know you had a daughter staying here with you. Or is it a granddaughter?”
I am certain there is a look of shock on my face as I reply, “No, there is no one staying here other than me.”
“Well who is that?” She points a finger at the staircase. “There, at the top of the stairs.”
I turn my head in the direction she is pointing.
There in the half light stands a small figure wearing an ankle length nightgown. In one hand she holds a battered teddy bear by its one ear. Her head and shoulders are in deep shadow. She begins to descend the stairs. As the dim light s illuminate her face, I hear the hiss of indrawn breath from the guests on my left.
The grey-white nightgown is torn, splattered with green mildew and stained with rust: or is it blood? Shoulder length dark, almost black hair, lank, tousled, uncombed, frames her face. It glistens in the poor light as if from some slimy film that drips and congeals on the fabric of her dress.
The skin on her hands and face is parchment yellow and drawn so tight over the bones as to make her little more than a walking skeleton, a withered frame almost the colour of a corn husk. Her lips are shrivelled, blackened by death making her mouth little more than a gash through which decaying, broken teeth protrude. A sickly yellow parody of a tongue squirms lizard-like from the lower jaw.
She has the eyes of the dead, large white sightless orbs sunken into the sockets in her skull, but they glow with an eerie pallid light. Green mucous oozes from a hideous slit across her throat.
The stench of something that has lain dead under rotting leaves for far too long invades the room, overpowering the aroma of cooking.
The air is rent by screams from two of the female guests, and I hear chairs scraping and grating across the wooden floor. A male voice growls, “What the fuck?”
There is the clatter of a chair falling and the tinkle of breaking glass and cutlery scattering on the floor. I an unable to move, rooted to my chair as those eyes of the damned stare, burning into mine. She reaches the bottom of the stairs, not walking, but floating several inches above the ground.
As if the heat is being sucked from the room, the temperature falls alarmingly. I am aware of people shouting and running. A door slams and I realize I am left alone with this gruesome, grotesque apparition.
I swallow the lump in my throat that is restricting my breathing and try to speak. After several attempts I manage to croak the words “Monique! Why? Why now?”
The room is silent, but a telepathic voice fills my mind. “You didn’t even invite me. And after all we’ve done together…”
Monique is my muse. A French call-girl—I musn’t call her a whore, she gets upset. She was murdered in spring of 1966 by some insane psychopath. She is/was the owner of a skull I unearthed while digging in the garden, and which now sits in pride of place in a cabinet beside my computer. She frequently appears to me in spectral form, often when I’m not expecting a visitation, and always with the intention of putting the fear of God into me.
© 2012. Robert A. Read.
My father was curator for an art gallery and museum in Paris. No, not the famous one; this was a small establishment off Rue de ***.
He often told me tales of the weird exhibits stored in the basement that, for one reason or another, were not on display. My interest was piqued when he described a painting in oils that they considered too disturbing for exhibition. So gruesome was his description that I had to see it. At last, after much badgering, but not till after my twentieth birthday, he took me down into the underground vault. The experience remained with me for life and may have influenced my choice of writing genre.
The title of the picture, written in a Gothic style of lettering was “Finale de la Danse Macabre”, but there was no signature of the artist. Style of clothing gave no indication, but I guessed from hairstyles that the setting was late 19th century. Shades of lurid red light bathed the scene detracting much of the detail. A group of figures, probably male, dressed in hooded, crimson gowns of the type often shown as being worn by practitioners of occult beliefs were depicted in various dancing poses, each with a female partner. That the partners were female was easy to see as each, apart from a mask resembling a bird’s head was completely naked. From the voluptuous female charms they showed no sign of shame in displaying, I would guess that none were older than their mid twenties. The male dancers I would not be sure, as the majority had their face hidden in the shadows of the cowl attached to the robe.
The couples gyrated in a dance similar to a waltz around a stone altar on which reposed the naked form of a young man. His arms and legs outstretched were fastened to beams of wood in the shape of an “X”. On closer inspection, I could see him held in place by large metal spikes through his limbs. From the minute detail, his torture seemed to be the focus of interest for the artist.
Symbolic shapes of strange design, cut into his skin, bled profusely. He had been castrated, the genitalia having been cut so deeply, I at first assumed the figure to be female. A deep gash, almost from lower sternum to pelvis, had opened up his stomach from where entrails spilled like writhing snakes. Blood dripped and pooled on the altar and floor around him.
His injuries were horrendous, and yet, from contortions of his face and wildly staring eyes, he was obviously still very much alive. Even in such agony, his face was beautiful, the flesh smooth, almost effeminate.
At his head stood a woman, a long, stiletto bladed knife in her hand. She too was naked, wearing only the bird-like mask, but adorned with a golden headdress similar to those worn by the Inca priests of South America. The metal blade of the knife gleamed in the red, glowing light as blood dripped from its tip..
I took the picture from the wall for closer inspection. Turning the frame, I noticed writing on the back. Although in French, the English translation would read, “Dance Macabre performed at Theatre of Dreams, Rue de ***.”
“The theatre was on the same street as the museum then?” I asked my father.
“I have no idea,” he replied, “but now you mention it, I heard once that the museum was converted from an old theatre.”
“You know?” I let my gaze pan around the vault, “I think it could have been painted in this very room.” Carrying the painting I made my way between the displays noting how the pillars and columns supporting the roof matched those in the picture. Until I came to a brick wall where no wall should have existed. “Hey! This shouldn’t be here. Can you bring a flash-light?”
It was immediately obvious that the wall was not part of the original structure, and erected in some haste. The mortar between the bricks had crumbled making the blocks easy to dislodge.
“We can’t do this!” My father had never been one to push the limits of authority.
I ignored him and continued removing bricks until I had a hole large enough for me to squeeze through. Shining the flash-light around showed me this was definitely where the scene was painted. The roof columns and floor although now covered with a layer of dust and cobwebs were exactly as the painting depicted.
The beam of light picked up a shadowy object in the centre of the room: the altar. I approached, casting the beam over the stone plinth, the grotesque carving of the block. The beam of light flickered over the top of the altar. I froze in mid-stride. A human figure sprawled across the top, stretched out and pinned to two wooden beams in the form of an “X”.
Blood dripped from strange symbols cut into the pale flesh. Entrails spewed like writhing snakes from the split belly. How could this be? According to the undisturbed dust and cobwebs, no one had been here for years. Perhaps, even, a whole century. Yet the figure appeared to be as fresh as the day the painting was made. I approached more slowly, playing the light over the horrendous injuries. Of course. This could only be a very lifelike manikin. A dummy. I shone the light on the pale, effeminate face, stooping to gaze at the beautiful, lifelike features. The beam glanced over the closed lids of the eyes. It all looked so real, like real flesh.
And then the eyes flicked open. A deep moan escaped from his mouth. The wild, staring eyes locked on to mine and I realized I was staring into the tortured depths of hell.
© 2012 Robert A. Read
The Last Tango.
I stand waiting, gazing across a surreal world of silver and black, wondering as always if this night will bring solace to my torment.
Isis, the night goddess, is visible as a half disk floating in an ocean of twinkling stars. Her pale gown reflects a shimmering translucence on the rippling surface of the lake before which I stand. Finger-like, almost transparent fronds of mist roll across the water; they beckon to the spruce and pine trees, standing like sentinels on the shoreline, to join them in gavotte among the wavelets that kiss the shingled beach. Only the plaintive hoot of an owl, a single mournful cry, disturbs the placid serenity and intensifies the solitude of my sojourn.
I think back to an evening long ago, a pavement café beside the bank of the Seine where I first saw Catalina. In those days, there were not so many auto-mobiles on the streets of Paris. Most vehicles during the first decades of the twentieth century were horse-drawn cabs.
I had set up my easel and paints to capture on canvas the carnelian and flame-orange Parisian sunset of early summer, when I saw her watching me. She was sitting with a group of students from Madame Bouvier’s Finishing School for Young Ladies. Of Satanically dark Latin beauty, her obsidian hair and tanned complexion rivalled the creamy hue of the dress she wore, holding my itinerant vision entranced. Her appearance and innocent demeanour were far removed from the fairer cast of her more lascivious companions, who incited the café artists to distraction.
She appeared to distance herself from her more bawdy associates, and I felt little surprise when she excused herself from their company and sauntered across the esplanade to view my work. Seeing her silhouetted against the sunset, it was imperative I persuade her to allow me to capture that wondrous moment in oils for eternity. Pose she did, and not just that one time. In the following months I captured the essence of her innocent beauty against numerous settings around the city.
From Buenos Aires, she resided in Paris with parents, her father being a high ranking Argentinian diplomat. Perhaps it started from her infatuation with being seen in the company of an artist, but Catalina took it upon herself to promote my work among her friends at college, and guests at the soirées hosted by her mother. In those months, our relationship flowered like a rose in the gardens of Versaille.
That autumn, a new dance craze swept like a fire-storm through the bars and cafés of Paris. Catalina was an immediate aficionado of the novelty, the dance having its origin in the country of her birth. During one of the sittings at my studio, she proposed to teach me to dance the tango. Whether it was the excellence of my teacher or my natural instinct for the rhythm I am unsure, but soon we were two of the best-known proponents of the steps in Parisian society. I am certain that her erotic elegance fuelled the explosive popularity of the dance.
It soon became clear that our amour was not in accord with the wishes of her parents. More and more, our clandestine trysts were conducted in secret, often beside the lake behind the château where her family resided. Sitting in romantic embrace among the shadows beneath the trees, we whispered vows of servitude, swearing our undying love, whatever adversities our differences in upbringing should inflict on our happiness.
One such night in late May, as I savoured the seduction in her brown eyes, her papa discovered our romantic liaison. He being a military man, I doubt if I would have fared better in a fair fight, but, accompanied by several minions from the embassy, the outcome was inevitable. He made his displeasure clear in words pertaining to the termination of my life if I approached again within five kilometres of either Catalina or the château. He dragged his weeping daughter back to the house, while the henchmen stressed the point with several vicious blows to my face and head before pitching me onto the street.
I heard nothing more from my beloved for six weeks. Then a letter was delivered to my room by a household servant, in which she begged that I might find the courage to rendezvous with her the next evening. The date was her nineteenth birthday. During the party in celebration of the event, a public announcement would be made of her engagement to Signor Romano de Silva, the son of one of the wealthiest men in South America. I surmised the match had been made through her parents with no regard for the wishes of their daughter. Devastated, but uncertain whether she intended a final farewell, or something more, I returned a letter stating that a garrison of mounted cavalry would not prevent me from making the effort to see her, and arranged a time to meet at our regular haunt.
In the shadows cast by the trees encroaching on the water’s edge, I waited. Like tonight, a half moon gleamed as if some apparition floated beneath the black surface of the lake. Sounds of laughter and music drifted from the veranda of the château like moths fluttering on the evening breeze, leaving no doubt about the carefree party atmosphere inside.
Ten minutes passed before a familiar sylph-like form flitted from the recess at the back of the house. I watched her silently slipping through the shadows until she reached my secluded location. We embraced without speaking, for words were unnecessary. The delicate allure of perfume on her neck teased my senses as we kissed. Her long hair was pulled back in a tight coil and secured with two tortoiseshell combs.
As we gazed into each other’s eyes, the orchestra broke into the tune I knew so well. Almost inaudibly, she murmured, “In two days I am forced to obey the wishes of my parents and board a ship for Buenos Aires. I asked that the band play this now so we may dance one last tango together.”
Icy fingers of anguish clutched my throat. I tried to speak, but she pressed a finger tip to my lips. With a faint shake of her head she said, “Please, say nothing to spoil this moment. I swear that one day, if you have not forgotten me, I will return to this place and we shall spend eternity together.”
There seemed a futility, a hopelessness in my life as I led her into the first ‘el paseo’, or slow walk. In all the times we had danced together, I had never known her movements so explicit as we performed ‘el cruzado’, the scissors step, and then entwined our legs for the ‘la vigne’, the grape vine. The tempo increased as we whirled in the moonlight until the final steps, when we dropped almost to our knees on the beach, lips pressed together in a final kiss. I wish I could have held that kiss until the end of time, savouring the perfume of her skin, the warm sweet taste of her breath.
But a single slow hand clap brought reality rushing back to my senses.
In horror I looked up to see two male figures emerge from the shadows. The taller, with bearded face and dressed in military uniform, I recognized as Catalina’s father. The other, a younger man with sallow complexion, immaculately dressed in black tuxedo over white dress-shirt, I assumed, was the one she would marry. It was from his hands that the applause originated, yet his face was twisted into a sneer.
“Bravo! For someone alien to our national dance, that was some performance.” With voice, whining and weak as his complexion, he continued, “Such a pity there will never be an encore.”
He reached out, grabbing Catalina by the arm. She stumbled as he pulled her from me. It was only then I saw the glint of moonlight on something metallic in the hand of her father.
Catalina must have seen it at the same time. She screamed words that sounded like, “Papa! No!”
I tried to stand as a flash of fire and the sound of an explosion tore through the stillness. Something struck me in the chest like the kick from a race horse. I felt ribs shatter and flesh burn in a brief moment of searing agony that seemed to continue for eternity.
Eventually the pain dissolved into nothing, blown away like dust in the moving stream of air from the lake. And then came the sudden realization that I was sprawled on my back in the shallow water. I saw horror on the face of my beloved as she tore free from the grip of her captor. Her mouth was moving as if in agonized scream, yet I heard only silence. She knelt in the water beside me, lifting my shoulders and pressing my cheek against her breast. Thick blood oozed from the hole in my chest, staining the cream silk of her dress to burgundy, dripping in globules into the lake. The two men grabbed her, one on each arm, pulling her away. I stood up and watched as they dragged her back along the shore to the house.
It is difficult to realize that almost sixty years have passed since that night. Whenever the half-moon rises in mid-summer I am drawn to this spot, knowing that one day she will be free to return as she promised; one day we will be together, in accordance with the vows we made so long ago.
I wait, inhaling the silence of the night. Never, in all the years that I have been held to this place, have I felt so close to my sweet Catalina. Then I hear those strains of music from the crumbling walls of the derelict château, the same orchestra playing our song. I hear a whispered voice in my ear, “I asked that the band play, so we may dance one last tango together.”
Turning, I gaze on her Satanically dark Latin beauty. Even in the darkness, she shines with radiant light, not one day older than the last moment I saw her. Her eyes have a mischievous gleam that I have never seen before, and her perfect mouth curls into a smile of unadulterated happiness. We kiss, my cold lips pressed against hers, so warm and so alive. It is as if she breathes life into me as we embrace. There is no need for her to ask me twice. Our bodies begin to sway, then our feet begin to move in response to the rhythm. In the moonlit shadows, two spectral figures now haunt the shore at the water’s edge of a lake on the outskirts of Paris as we dance our final, never-ending, last tango.
© 2010. Robert A. Read