Authors: Fred Chappell
Other Boson Books by Fred Chappell
Moments of Light
It Is Time, Lord
The Gaudy Place
3905 Meadow Field Lane
Raleigh, NC 27606
ISBN (print) 978-0-917990-94-6
ISBN (ebook) 978-1-886420-29-8
An imprint of C&M Online Media, Inc.
Copyright 2009 Fred Chappell
All rights reserved
For information contact
C&M Online Media, Inc.
3905 Meadow Field Lane
Raleigh, NC 27606
Tel: (919) 233-8164
Fax: (919) 233-8578
Cover art by Joel Barr
Those Who Cast Their Shadows Out of Time upon our days
Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn.
About 9:30 the next morning he entered the downstairs room which faced the almost painÂfully blue west and the tall ridge across the little valley, the room which his grandparents had used to call the “sun parlor.” He advanced into the room a way and halted, seeming to feel the whole fabric of the house tremulous with his footsteps. And he had paused to consider, well, to think about how much there actually
to consider. The onus of inheritance was already beginning to rub a bit.âThe room was familÂiarly musty and the two windows, eyed and wavy, were decent in their gray gauzy curtains. Over the bisected window in the door which opened to the outside, the glass curtain was stretched tight with rods at top and bottom so that the cloth was pulled into stiff ribs, stiff as fingers of the dead. He took another step and again hesitated, hearing the quiet wary rattle of glassware somewhere. Meditating, he shifted his weight forward and back, rocking on the balls of his feet. Had all the floor timbers melted away with dry rot? He couldn't quite bring himself to doubt, staring down frowning at the regular lines of dark oak flooring, board laid solid by board. Even the layer of dust which was spread like cheesecloth about his feet didn't entirely dull the hard polish of the wood. He disliked thinking of these careful rows ripped up, exposÂing the broad rough subflooring; and then that too taken away to get at the flaking bones of the house. But there was probably no preventing it. He sighed, and as he inhaled, agitated atoms of dust pierced his nostrils brightly. Twice he sneezed, and rubbed his nose roundly with his wrist, squeezed his eyebrows in his palm. Had he really heard an echo to his sneeze? The room hardly seemed large enough to give up echoesâit was about twenty feet square with a high ceilingâbut it was a room truly made for secondary presences, for reverberations. This wasn't the whole room. Opposite him, double doors, divided into small glass rectangles, closed off what was actually the remainder of this room. In the left door his image stood, hand still over his face, and he was all cut into pieces in the panes. He dropped his pale hand to his side, and in the glass the movement coruscated.
He moved toward the west wall and once again his image, larger now and darker, acÂcosted him. His head and torso stood before him, sliced now into the pattern of an oval enclosed in roundish triangles and seemingly stacked in the shelves of the dark old writing cabinet. He shrugged, turned away. The low sofa, piled with fancy pillows and cushions, sat stolid against the opposite wall. The obese horror was draped over with a picture rug, but it was easy enough to guess how it was: covered with a vinous prickly nap and with three huge cushions laid on the springs. The wool picture rug had two fringes of red tassel and displayed a Levantine scene: in the market place the wine seller sits comfortably beneath his awning while the dark and turbaned stranger looms above him on his camel, and behind in the dusty street the woman returns from the well, her water jug shouldered. This tableau splotched with a profusion of pillows and cushions, green, red, yellow, gaudy flowers, knowing birds, birds darkly wise. In the center of the sofa were two oblong companion pillows, shouldered so closely together that they looked like the Decalogue tablets. They were white, or had been white, and painfully stitched upon them with blue thread were companion mottoes, companion pictures. In the left pillow lies a girl, her long blue hair asprawl about her face, her eyes innocently shut, asleep. The motto: I SLEPT AND DREAMED THAT LIFE WAS BEAUTY. But the story continued, and on the next pillow her innocence is all torn away: there she stands, gripping a round broom; her hair now is pinned up severely and behind her sits a disheartening barrel churn. I WOKE AND FOUND THAT LIFE WAS DUTY. The pillows sat, stuffed and stiff as disapproving bishops; they could, he thought, serve as twin tombstones for whole gray generations. It was in no way difficult to imagine the fingers of his grandmother, tough and knobbly, wearily working upon these wearying legends, these most speaking epitaphs. It was more discouraging still to wonder if perhaps this task hadn't been performed by his grandmother's mother. Even without thinking he doubted that there was anything in his blood which could now fight back to that bitter use of mind; he just wasn't so toughâ¦.No; no, that wasn't true, either. Slow, wet, easy living hadn't got to his Puritan core, not
hump logs together to make a house;
could plow the long furrow as straight as a killing arrow. It was simply that he didn't have to: the world had got easier, even the sky. All that temper was still in him and not really very hidden, and it was no strange matter that these two pillows could cause to rise in his mind narrow visions of those stringent decades. He could see his male ancestry as grainy and rough as if they had all been hacked from stone. They didn't drink, didn't smoke; they didn't read, and all books other than the great black one were efficient instruments of Sathanas. The only fun they had was what he was living evidence of.âAnd very probably not.âHe could imagine them, his whiskery forefathers, stalking wifeward to beget, stolid, unmoved as men readying themÂselves to slaughter hogs. And some hint of that too. The women were no better. Their hands were pained knots, like blighted unopenable buds. Their eyes were stuffed with the opaque ice which had clenched over the fear of their hearts.â¦And yet, and yet there was always something faintly comforting in thinking upon the gelid principles with which his grandfathers had shored up themselves for duty, military or familial, or for the rich farming business.
He was vaguely bothered, nettled, and he turned away from contemplating the pillows. Across from him was the wide entry to a dark formal dining room, and in the near corner a complacent fat club chair. He turned round and round, feeling the windows slide over his sight and the serrated glitter of the glass doors, and found himself, in a momentary accident, face to face with the wall. It was plaster, and he could discern in its grain the sweep of the maker's trowel and swirled signs of the hair. In the morning silence the wall seemed as vocal as evÂerything else in the room. Illumination, a gilt tin contraption which sported naked light bulbs, hung suspended from the ceiling by a gilt chain, and a thick webby electric cord sidled through the links. Before the piled sofa sat a low table, the wood mahogany-stained, with a glass top which displayed photographs that could dim, but not curl, with age: four rows of gray-and-black squares, instants of frozen miming that he would not examine. More gilt, on the wall above the sofa: a rectangular frame which enclosed a photograph in anemicâ“tinted”âcolors, the faces of his grandfather and grandmother. Both the progenitors seemed masked for the picture, as severe as if they had plotted beforehand to judge the photographer, to sentence him to a life of hard labor. The eyes of the grandfather were frigid blue, the color of the windwashed March sky reflected in the ice of a puddle. SomeÂhow the tinting process, whatever it was, had made those eyes inviting targets for wishful darts. Set jaws, assured noses, ears which would admit only acquiescent sounds. The eyes of the grandmother were gray and, though doubtless resolute, the gaze was not so personally staÂtioned. In her clear forehead and in the rather distant aiming of her eyes there was not so much of her husband's belligerent certainty; there was a hint of troubledâbut still (he had to admit it)âunshaken humanity. But it was an unyielding countenance, and he found himself brushing his hand over his face as if he had just walked through a cobweb. Awkwardly he stepped back, as though he could retreat from his unrealized action or, rather, from whatever vague thought had inspired it. Nor was he delighted to see his mind so often turning upon himself.
He pawed a mass of pillows heavily aside and sat down on the sofa; fumbled in his shirt pocket for a cigarette. The odor of the sofa submerged him; it wasn't sour exactly, but rather sweet-and-sour, palpable; musty, of course, but with an aura of times past so striking as almost to give an impression of freshness. The smell betokened what? Voluminous clothes kept with a sachet too old, so that its power had disappeared into the cloth. Or long dutiful Sunday afternoons spent with the Methodist preacher over a box of stale chocolate candies. Or dripping afternoon funerals set up in this room and garnished with flowers which had very recently given up their sickly ghosts. His spirit seemed drowning in the smell of the sofa, in the swift flood of pastness it poured out. He lit the cigarette and sucked the smoke deep, as if protecting himseff, almost in fact as if smoking was an act of defiance toward the past. The smoke rose slowly, the lax strands of it parting and hanging almost motionless in the air, seemingly very solid. It was himself, in fact, who seemed flimsy; even his body, whose weight the hard sofa barely accepted, felt vaporÂous, tenuous: there was not enough real event attached to it to force it to existence. The room was so silent that he could hear his chest rasp against the cloth of his shirt as he breathed, and for one scary moment he imagined that this sound became increasingly faint, was dying away. He dropped the blackened paper match into a silly little ashtray, a tiny china circle withâagainâgilt lines and in the center an ugly pink rose. The dead match lay across the face of the rose like a disastrous scar, and he noted it with a twinge of guilty triumph; so that almost reflexively he mashed the new cigarette into the flower, leaving there a raw streak of black ash. The small coals died immediately.
He rose and crossed the room. As he had susÂpected, the desk section of the dark secretary was locked, but through the glass cabinet doors he saw the small brass key lying on the middle shelf. The lock was reluctant, but the section did at last let down, exposing an interior less musty than he had imagined. There were half a dozen tight-ranked drawers and a number of bulging pigeonholes. Letters, photographs, books of check stubs, a bottle in which the ink had dried to a circular black scab, a Waterman pen with a discolored yellow nib. He pulled from one of the pigeonholes a resisting envelope and shook the letter from it. The cheap paper had darkened with dust and the recalcitrant words had been formed with blunt pencil strokes, gray on gray. He held the sheet above his head and turned his back to the window. The words came dimly to his eyes:â¦
guess Jasper's note will be alright anyway for this year and can renew with confiÂdance, I guess in the neighborhood of 1500
. It would of course be concerned with money. He let it drop unfluttering and wiped his fingers on his trousers leg. From a closed drawer peeped the shiny corner of a snapshot, which he slipped out without opening the drawer. At first he couldn't comprehend what object was pictured, but it was, after all, merely an automobile, a Dodge or a Plymouth of the late â30's, black, hardily at repose before the immaculately vertical lines of a walnut tree. Why this photograph? He stared at it as if it were an urgent but indeciÂpherable message, intently personal. The car was not new, had not been photographed on that account. It was perhaps no more than the thoughtless effort to finish up a roll of film so that a brother with his arm about the shoulders of an aunt or a wide-eyed distressed baby cousin might sooner see the light of day in their own white-edged squares. Yet here it was, the car, as bluntly and totally itself as if it had been inÂvented for the purpose of perplexing. He tried to slide the snapshot back through the crack in the top of the drawer, but it encountered a hidÂden tightness and folded up, the brittle surface suddenly webbed with fine lines like a cracked china plate. He desisted, and let the picture loll out of the front of the desk like an idiot untasting tongue. When he once more glimpsed his darkly reflected face in the cabinet doors, his eyes looked fearful.
He turned again to the panes of glass in the double doors, this time erasing his features by bringing his face directly against one of the panes. He cupped his hands, extending them from his temples as if he were trying to see for a long distance through blinding sunlight. The interior of this room swam forward to meet him. Although there was a row of windows in the opposite wall, they were darkened by a shaggy row of fir bushes growing by the outside wall, so that this room was even dimmer than the one in which he was standing.
When he tried the knob the lock uttered an unnerving scrape, but the right-hand door swung inward easily enough. Here was real mustiness, an odor so stuffed with unmoving time that it seemed strange the pressure of it hadn't burst' the doors and windows. Entering, he left unclear tracks in the dust behind him, and the dust muted his footsteps, seemed to adÂhere like cobweb to his shoes. The dust seemed a huge powdery cobweb. A long low comfortÂless-looking lounge was pushed against the wall, and the tough ornate wood of the back of it jammed into the window sill. This sofa was unÂdraped, but the upholstery was decorated with looping broad arabesques which suggested a badly stylized jungle. There were four identical knickknack tables on thin legs; they were clutÂtered with more of the tiny uninviting ashtrays and with a number of small pale wooden boxes. Against the east wall sat a black upright piano which somehow seemed sagging. He crossed to it and opened it. The keys were discolored, yelÂlowish, cracked, and in some cases the ivory was missing almost completely. He punched ginÂgerly at middle A, then experimented with a simple triad. Middle C sounded merely a dull thump; the E and A keys produced a dissonance. No doubt the strings had rusted, the whole guts of the instrument diseased and disordered. Again he wiped his fingers on his trousers, trying to wipe away that dust which seemed to seep into the pores of his skin. With his cold hand he brushed his face too, and the back of his neck. Over the top of the piano drooped a big elaboÂrately embroidered doily; it looked like a fishnet, a fantastic net to catchâwhat? Oh, whatever inhabited the surcharged air of this room. Even after he backed away from the inÂstrument, that acrid chord seemed to hang still in his hearing; it was as if he had written indeliÂble curse words upon something which was supÂposed to remain sacredly blank. He raised and dropped his shoulders in a sigh; he felt almost as if he had been working away in hard physical labor; he had never before felt his will be so ringed about, so much at bay. Never before had he realized so acutely the invalidity of his desires, how they could be so easily canceled, simply marked out, by the impersonal presence of something, a place, an object, anything veheÂmently and uncaringly itself.â¦But the pastÂness which these two rooms (really, one room divided) enclosed was not simply the imperÂsonal weight of dead personality but a willful belligerence, active hostility. Standing still in the center of the first room, he felt the floor stirring faintly beneath his feet, and he was conÂvinced that the house was gathering its muscles to do him harm; it was going to spring. But then he heard the sharp-heeled foot-steps which caused the quivering, and then Sheila, his blond pale pretty wife, stuck her head through the hall door.