Authors: Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Doyle, however, clever, clever Doyle, with his knowledge of scientific and alchemical matters, with his fascination with biological processes, Doyle had understood all the possibilities nobody else had grasped.
The fungus needed a human mind that could serve as a vessel for memories, that could offer control. The fungus and the proper human mind, fused together, were like wax, and Howard was like a seal, and he imprinted himself upon new bodies like a seal on paper.
The priests had managed to transmit a few stray memories from one to the other through the mushrooms, through the lineage of their people, but they were crude and random occurrences. Doyle systematized. And all he had needed were people like Agnes.
His wife. His kin.
But now there was no Agnes. Agnes was the gloom and the gloom was Agnes, and Howard Doyle, if he perished this instant, would still exist in the gloom, for he had created wax and a seal and paper.
And it hurt. It was in pain. The gloom. Agnes. The mushrooms. The house, heavy with rot, with hidden tendrils extending beneath and up its walls feeding on all manner of dead matter.
He is hurt. We are hurt
Look, look, look
The buzzing had acquired a fever pitch; it was so loud Noemí covered her ears and screamed, and inside her head a voice bellowed.
Francis grabbed her by the shoulders and turned her around.
“Don’t look at her,” he said. “We are never supposed to look at her.”
The buzzing had ceased all of a sudden, and she raised her head and looked at Catalina, who was staring at the floor, and she looked back at Francis in horror.
A sob stuck in her throat. “They buried her alive,” Noemí said. “They buried her alive and she died, and the fungus sprouted from her body and…dear God…it’s not a human mind anymore…he remade her. He remade her.”
She was breathing very fast. Too fast, and the buzzing had ceased, but the woman was still there. Noemí turned her head, tempted to stare again at that hideous skull, but he caught her chin in his hand. “No, no, look at me. Stay here with me.”
She took a deep breath, feeling like a diver who was surfacing again. Noemí stared into Francis’s eyes. “She’s the gloom. Did you know?”
“Only Howard and Virgil come here,” Francis said. He was shivering.
“But you knew!”
All the ghosts were Agnes. Or rather, all the ghosts lived inside Agnes. No, that wasn’t right either. What had once been Agnes had become the gloom, and inside the gloom there lived ghosts. It was maddening. It was not a haunting. It was possession and not even that, but something she couldn’t even begin to describe. The creation of an afterlife, furnished with the marrow and the bones and the neurons of a woman, made of stems and spores.
“Ruth knew too, and we couldn’t do anything. She keeps us here, she’s how Howard controls everything. We can’t leave. They don’t let us, ever.”
He was sweating and then he was sliding down onto his knees, grasping Noemí’s arms. “What is it? You must get up,” she said, also sliding to her knees, touching his face.
“He’s right, he can’t leave. Neither can you, for that matter.”
It was Virgil who had spoken. He was swinging the metal gate open and walking in. Strolling in. Very casually. Perhaps he was a hallucination. Perhaps he wasn’t even there. Noemí stared at him.
It can’t be,
“What?” he said with a shrug, letting the gate close behind him with a loud clang. He was there. It was no hallucination. Rather than following them down the tunnel he had simply gone aboveground, through the cemetery, and descended the steps from the crypt.
“Poor girl. You actually look shocked. You didn’t
think you had killed me. You also didn’t think I accidentally happened to carry that tincture in my pocket, did you? I let you have it, I let you snap out of our hold for a few moments. I let you cause this mayhem.”
She swallowed. Next to her Francis was shivering. “Why?”
“Isn’t it obvious? So you could hurt my father. I couldn’t. Francis couldn’t. The old man ensured none of us could raise a hand against him. You saw how he forced Ruth to kill herself. When I learned what Francis was up to I thought: here’s my chance. Let the girl escape her bonds, let’s see what she can do, this outsider who isn’t subject to our rules quite yet, who can still fight back. And now he’s dying. Feel it? Hmm? His body is falling apart.”
“That can’t be good for you,” Noemí said. “If you hurt him, you hurt the gloom, and besides, even if his body dies, he’ll still exist in the gloom. His mind—”
“He’s weakened. I control the gloom now,” Virgil said angrily. “When he dies, he’ll die forever. I won’t let him have a new body. Change. That’s what you wanted, no? Turns out we want the same.”
Virgil had reached Catalina’s side and was glancing at her with a smirk. “There you are, dear wife. Thank you for your contribution to the evening’s entertainment,” he said, squeezing her arm in a gesture of mock affection. Catalina winced, but did not move.
“Don’t touch her,” Noemí said, standing up and reaching for the knife in the silver box.
“Don’t be meddlesome. She’s my wife.”
Noemí closed her fingers around the knife. “You better not—”
“You better drop that knife,” Virgil replied.
, she thought, yet her hand was shaking and there was this terrible impulse rushing through her body, pushing her to obey.
“I drank the tincture. You can’t control me.”
“Funny, that,” Virgil said, letting go of Catalina and looking at Noemí. “You did snap out of our control back there. But the tincture doesn’t seem to last that long, and walking all around the house, down into this chamber, you’ve been exposed to the gloom’s influence again. You’re breathing it in, all these tiny, invisible spores. You’re in the heart of the house. All three of you.”
“The gloom is hurt. You can’t—”
“We’ve all taken a beating today,” Virgil said, and she could now see there were beads of sweat dotting his forehead and his blue eyes had a feverish sheen to them. “But I’m in control now, and you’re going to do as I say.”
Her fingers ached, and suddenly it felt like she was holding a hot coal in her hand. Noemí let the knife fall to the floor with a loud clang and a yelp.
“Told you,” Virgil said mockingly.
She looked down at the knife, which lay by her foot. It was so close, yet she could not pick it up. She felt pins and needles running down her arms, making her fingers twitch. Her hand hurt, the broken bones ached with a terrible, burning pain.
“Look at this place,” Virgil said, glancing at the chandelier above their heads with distaste. “Howard was caught in the past, but I look forward to the future. We’ll have to reopen the mine, see about getting new furniture in here, real electric power. We’ll need servants, of course, new automobiles, and children. I expect you’ll have no problem giving me many children.”
“No,” she said, but it was a whisper, and she could sense his grip on her, like an invisible hand settling on her shoulder.
“Come here,” Virgil ordered. “You’ve been mine since the beginning.”
The mushrooms on the walls swayed, as if they were alive, like anemones rippling under water. They released clouds of golden dust and they sighed. Or it was she who sighed, for there was that sweet, dark feeling she had felt before enveloping her once again, and she was suddenly light-headed. The troublesome pain of her left hand lifted and vanished.
Virgil was holding his arms out to her, and Noemí thought of those arms twined around her and how good it would be to surrender to his will. Deep down she wished to be torn apart, to scream in shame; his palm muffling that scream against her mouth.
The mushrooms glowed brighter, and she thought perhaps later she might touch them, running her hands against the wall and settling her face against the softness of their flesh. It would be good to rest there, skin pressed tight against their slick bodies, and maybe they’d cover her, the lovely fungi, and cram into her mouth, into her nostrils and eye sockets until she could not breathe and they nestled in her belly and bloomed along her thighs. And Virgil, too, driving deep within her, and the world would be a blur of gold.
“Don’t,” Francis said.
She had taken one step down the dais, but Francis had reached out a hand and clasped her injured fingers, the pain of his touch making her wince. She looked down at him, blinking, and froze.
“Don’t,” he whispered, and she could tell he was afraid. Nevertheless, he descended the steps ahead of her, as if he might shield her. His voice sounded frail and strained, ready to splinter. “Let them go.”
“Why would I ever do that?” Virgil asked innocently.
“It’s wrong. Everything we do is wrong.”
Virgil pointed over his shoulder, toward the tunnel they had followed. “Hear that? That’s my father dying, and when his body finally collapses I will have absolute power over the gloom. I’ll need an ally. We are kin, after all.”
Noemí thought that she could indeed hear something, that in the distance Howard Doyle groaned and spat blood, and black fluid leaked from his body as he strained to keep breathing.
“Look, Francis, I’m not a selfish man. We can share,” Virgil said expansively. “You want the girl, I want the girl. It’s no reason to fight, huh? And Catalina is a sweet thing too. Come, come, don’t be dull.”
Francis had picked up the knife she had dropped, and now he held it up. “You won’t hurt them.”
“Are you going to try and stab me? I should warn you I’m a little harder to kill than a woman. Yes, Francis, you managed to kill your mother. Over what? A girl? And now? It’s my turn?”
“Go to hell!”
Francis rushed toward Virgil, but he suddenly halted, his hand frozen in midair, the knife tight in his grip. Noemí couldn’t see his face but she could imagine it. It must mirror her expression, for she too had become a statue, and Catalina stood in absolute stillness.
The bees stirred, the buzzing began.
“Don’t make me kill you,” Virgil warned him, and his hand fell upon Francis’s trembling hand. “Yield.”
Francis shoved Virgil away, sending Virgil crashing against the wall with a strength that seemed impossible.
For one split second she felt Virgil’s pain, the tug of adrenaline rushing through her veins, his fury mingled with her own.
Francis, you little shit
. It was the gloom, connecting them for a brief instant, and she yelped, almost biting her tongue. She stepped back, her feet slowly obeying her. One, two steps.
Virgil frowned. His eyes seemed to glow gold as he stepped forward and brushed off tiny bits of mushrooms and dust that had adhered to his jacket.
The buzzing bubbled up, first low, then rumbling into life, and she winced.
Francis groaned his answer and flung himself against Virgil once more. His cousin stopped him with ease. He was much stronger, and this time he was prepared for an attack. He caught Francis’s desperate punch, returning it with vicious abandon, hitting Francis in the head. Francis stumbled yet managed to regain his balance and struck back. His fist connected with Virgil’s mouth, and Virgil let out an angry, startled gasp.
Virgil’s eyes narrowed as he wiped his mouth clean.
“I’ll make you bite off your own tongue,” Virgil said simply.
The men had changed positions, and now Noemí could see Francis’s face, the blood welling down his temple as he heaved and shook his head, and Noemí saw the way his eyes were open wide and the way his hands were shaking and how his mouth was opening and closing, like a fish gasping for air.
Dear God, Virgil was going to make him do it. He would make him eat his own tongue.
Noemí heard the growing buzzing of bees behind her.
She turned around, and her eyes fell on the face of Agnes, her lipless mouth set in an eternal circle of pain, and she pressed her hands against her ears, furiously wondering why it wouldn’t stop. Why that noise wouldn’t cease, returning over and over again.
And it struck her all of a sudden this fact that she had missed, which should have been obvious from the very beginning: that the frightening and twisted gloom that surrounded them was the manifestation of all the suffering that had been inflicted on this woman. Agnes. Driven to madness, driven to anger, driven to despair, and even now a sliver of that woman remained, and that sliver was still screaming in agony.
She was the snake biting its tail.
She was a dreamer, eternally bound to a nightmare, eyes closed even when her eyes had turned to dust.
The buzzing was her voice. She could not communicate properly any longer but could still scream of unspeakable horrors inflicted on her, of ruin and pain. Even when coherent memory and thought had been scraped away, this searing rage remained, burning the minds of any who wandered near it. What did she wish?
Simply to be released from this torment.
Simply to wake up. But she couldn’t. She couldn’t ever wake.
The buzzing was growing, threatening to hurt Noemí again and overwhelm her mind, but she reached down and grabbed the oil lamp with quick, rough fingers and rather than thinking about what she was about to do, she thought of that single phrase that Ruth had spoken.
Open your eyes, open your eyes,
and her steps were quick and determined, and for each step she whispered
open your eyes
Until she was staring at Agnes again.
“Sleepwalker,” she whispered. “Time to open your eyes.”
She tossed the lamp against the corpse’s face. It instantly ignited the mushrooms around Agnes’s head, creating a halo of fire, and then tongues of fire began to spread quickly down the wall, the organic matter apparently as good as kindling, making the mushrooms blacken and pop.
Virgil screamed. It was a hoarse, terrible scream, and he collapsed upon the floor and scratched at the tiles, attempting to stand up. Francis also collapsed. Agnes was the gloom and the gloom was part of them, and this sudden damage to Agnes, to the web of mushrooms, must be like neurons igniting. Noemí for her part felt jolted into complete awareness, the gloom shoving her away.