Authors: Sarah Monette,Lynne Thomas
Tags: #fantasy, #short story, #short stories
Then, one night, Ivo burned me. It was not anything he meant to do—that, I still believe—merely that he caught my wrist, and I screamed at his touch.
He jerked his hand away, his eyes wide. “Kyle?”
I was staring at my left wrist, at the already blistering imprint, terribly distinct, of his fingers: the index, middle, and ring fingers clutching across the back of my arm, the little finger stretching down toward my elbow, the mark of his thumb resting across the vulnerable blue veins on the inside of my wrist.
I looked up at him. I had never seen fear on Ivo’s face, and I hated the way it made him look. He said, his voice barely a whisper, “Oh, Kyle, I am so sorry. Oh, my beloved, I never meant to hurt you. Here, come with me. I know what to do.”
I let him lead me to the bathroom, let him wash the burn with cold water—his hands now barely warmer than mine—let him smear it with some ointment that he got out of his overcoat, a crumpled tin tube without a label. He wrapped my arm then, carefully, lovingly, in strips torn from an old shirt of mine. I was aware, all the while, of his eyes returning again and again to my face, of the anxiety he could not conceal. Finally, when he was done, he released me and stepped back, his gaze fixed on my face with such a naked look of pleading that I could not meet his eyes.
The pain had cleared my head; at least for this moment, I could both be with Ivo and think about him. I said, “What are you?”
“Kyle, beloved, please.” He tried to smile. “I love you. Isn’t that enough?”
“What are you, Ivo?”
I saw then that he would not answer me. Before he could choose his lie, I turned and walked past him, out of the bathroom, through the bedroom, out into the living room, buttoning my shirt with stiff, trembling fingers as I went.
“Kyle?” He followed me. I realized that I could hear the click of his toenails on the parquet floor, like a dog’s. “Kyle? Where are you going? What are you doing?”
I found my shoes, my coat, my keys. “I need to think,” I said, without turning back to look at him, and I left.
I walked for hours through the empty, night-haggard streets of the city. I neither noticed nor cared where I went, and if I had happened to fall in the river, I would have been glad of it. Perhaps because it was night, I found that I could remember Ivo, could piece together isolated, stranded thoughts that I had been having and forgetting for weeks: his eyes; his nails and teeth; the fact that I had never seen him either blink or sleep; the scent of viburnum that always surrounded him; the heat that he could only imperfectly control; the way he watched me, as if I were the only thing in the world that existed; the way I had become—I flinched from the word, but I knew it for truth—addicted to him. I remembered that after the first time I had seen him, my hands had dragged down the
from my shelves. And I knew.
Had I, I wondered, ever not known?
I stopped at last, in one of the city’s many small parks; I sat on a bench and wept as I had not wept since I had been caned at the age of thirteen for mourning my mother. It felt as if, not only my heart, but my mind and soul and spirit were broken, lying in shattered pieces around my untied shoes. For a long time it did not seem to me as if I would ever find the strength or the courage to leave this bench, and it did not seem that there would be any point in any action I could take after I stood up. There was no point in anything.
But I knew what had to be done. I had read Wells-Burton and everything he had to say on the subject of incubi. The fact that I would rather have ripped my own heart out of my chest and left it for the crows was not relevant. I reached down with fingers that felt like dry twigs and tied my shoes; then I stood up and walked home.
Ivo was waiting in the living room. He had been crying; his eyes looked raw and hollow. “Kyle!” he said, coming toward me. “Kyle, you came—”
“You aren’t here, Ivo,” I said, hanging up my coat. “You never have been.”
He stopped where he was, his hands still outstretched, his eyes widening with horror. “Kyle, what are you talking about? Kyle, don’t you—”
“I know what you are, Ivo.
You aren’t here
I walked through into the bedroom. He trailed after me. “Kyle, please, what are you saying? You know I love you. You know I’d do anything for you.”
“You aren’t here,” I said again. It was almost four o’clock. I took off my clothes, put on the pajamas I had not worn since I had invited Ivo into my apartment and my life. I dragged the covers back and lay down on the bed, on my back, as stiff and comfortless as a medieval Christ. I stared at the ceiling. I could hear Ivo crying, but he did not come near me.
We stayed that way until seven o’clock, when I got up. I showered, shaved, dressed. My burns were already healing, thanks to Ivo’s ointment, but I could see that the scars were going to remain with me for the rest of my life, as sharp and pitiless as a morgue photograph.
Ivo followed me from room to room, weeping. His control had slipped further during the night; his eyes were inhuman, without whites, the unearthly blue of marsh fire. His hair looked less like hair now, more like an animal’s rich pelt. He did not try to speak to me, but I left without making any move toward the kitchen. I could buy something to eat later, if I had to, though I could not imagine being hungry.
As I was opening the door, I said again, “You aren’t here, Ivo.”
In the museum, in the daylight, I did not remember him. I did not know why I felt so ill and strained, why, on my lunch break, I slipped down to the basement and wept for half an hour, huddled for comfort against a bad Roman copy of a Greek nude. I did not remember him until I opened my door to the scent of viburnum.
“Kyle, please, I’ll do anything you want, I’ll be anything you need me to be. I don’t care what it is, if it’s wicked or depraved or perverted,
, I’ll do it, I’ll do anything, just don’t do this to me. Kyle, please.”
He was not as solid as he had been; I could see the wall through him, and his voice was faint. Only his eyes were still vivid, still fully present, and the terror and wretchedness and need in them tore at me like cruel teeth. For he did love me; to him I was the world. The fact that his love would infallibly kill me, leeching my essence away to feed his, as his previous lovers had fed him, was no desire of his. And when he had killed me, he would go on to his next hapless victim, his prey, whom he would love and destroy just as he loved and was destroying me.
“You aren’t here, Ivo,” I said.
He was weaker. Light hurt him now. I turned on the lights in every room in the apartment, pretending that I could not hear his cries of pain, driving him eventually into the bedroom closet, where he huddled like a beaten child, sobbing, only half-visible against my suits. I stayed in the living room that night, sitting with Wells-Burton’s
by the fire, as I had sat on that other night, the night after he had chosen me, staring at the engraving that illustrated the chapter on incubi and succubi: a smiling youth with the teeth of a beast.
By morning, the scent of viburnum was fainter. I made myself ready for the day. When I looked in the mirror to shave, I could see him reflected behind me, a smear of gold, a smudge of blue against the white wall. I knew that if I concentrated I would be able to hear him, that by now all he would be able to say was my name. I did not try to hear him; I was trying with all my might to forget him, to bring that daylight oblivion into the night kingdom where once Ivo had ruled.
When I left, I said again, “You aren’t here, Ivo,” and this time I could feel the silence that answered my words, as if what I had said were true. When I returned that night, I could not smell viburnum.
That was effectively the end of it. There were still nights when I would wake in the middle of the night to the faint sweetness of viburnum, a feeling that there was almost weight on the mattress next to me, and I would have to get up, stumbling through the rooms of my apartment to turn on the lights. But as time passed those nights came farther and farther apart, and within six months they had ceased entirely. Ivo was truly gone, and now I cannot remember, even in the darkness, exactly what he looked like or how his voice sounded. Even in dreams, I cannot see him clearly, and although I know that is for the best, I know I do not want him back, yet I still miss him. I will always miss him—although I know that soon I will forget him entirely—for he was the only one I have ever known who loved me for what I am.
It was the head docent, Miss Chatteris, who found me. Coming to the Parrington very early one morning in mid-April, she observed a light burning in my office. Although that was not unusual—I was notorious throughout the museum for the odd hours I kept—it inspired her, she said later, to peek in and see if I could spare her a moment. I cannot imagine what she wanted to talk to me about; probably it was no more than nosiness.
She did not knock—either through her innate tactlessness or a cunning suspicion that I would not answer her—simply opened the door and walked in. And there she found me, lying crumpled on the floor in a dead faint.
It remains anyone’s guess how long I had been lying there. My own memories seem to stop nearly a week prior to Miss Chatteris’s discovery, with a hideous nightmare involving the Resurrection Hill Cemetery and the museum’s vast, green, leather-bound
Catalogue of Books
; between that nightmare and coming back to myself on the couch in the Curators’ Lounge with Dr. Archambault leaning over me, there is nothing. I cannot even remember that I remember nothing; there is only a kind of soft blackness, such as one might recall after a dreamless sleep.
Dr. Archambault said, “You are very ill, Mr. Booth.”
I said, “I can’t be. Our History of the Book exhibit opens less than a week from now.” I do remember saying that, but as if it were a line delivered in a play of which I was merely a spectator. They do not feel like my words, and in the ears of my memory it does not sound like my voice which says them.
“And its success will be a great comfort at your funeral, I am sure,” Dr. Archambault said. He left me then, with Miss Chatteris to sit by me. I was too ill to mind. When he came back, he and Dr. Starkweather, the museum director, had worked things out to their mutual satisfaction. Mr. Lucent would take over my duties, and I would go for an extended stay to an excellent convalescent hotel in Herrenmouth—having, as apparently everyone in the museum knew, no one to look after me. My protests were feeble, and Dr. Archambault did not listen to them. He drove me back to my apartment, packed a bag for me, and by midday had put me onto the Herrenmouth train with a promise that someone from the hotel would be at the station to meet me. He was a well-organized autocrat, and I had by then begun to be glad of it. My head was pounding, and all of my joints felt as though they had been wrapped around with lead. I was dimly aware that Dr. Archambault was right; I was ill, and I must have been ill for days without knowing it. I slumped into the corner of the compartment and, without intending to, fell into a doze.
I have never been one of those people who can drop off in a public place as easily as they can in their own beds. My friend Blaine had been able to, and it had always been a skill I envied. Even now, when I could not have stayed awake if I had wished it, I did not entirely fall asleep. When the door to the compartment opened, I heard it, and I heard the ensuing conversation. Weakly and dully, I wanted to drag myself back into the waking world, but that was as beyond my powers as flying to the moon. I could only stay where I was, an inert, helpless audience.
A female voice said, “What about this compartment, Auntie? It’s nearly empty.”
Another female voice, old and pretending to be feeble, said, “I don’t know. There’s a man in that corner.”
“He’s an old man, Auntie, and he’s asleep. He won’t bother us.”
“I won’t have anyone getting fresh with me.”
“Oh, I’m sure he won’t. He’s all wrapped up, like he’s ill. It would be funny if we were all going to the same place.”
. There aren’t any empty compartments, and this one old man isn’t going to bother anybody.”
There was a long, thorny silence. “Very well.”
I could not pry my eyelids open, but I heard them come in, the rustle of their dresses and the thumps and bangs of what seemed a quite extraordinary amount of luggage. The younger voice cajoled and pleaded; the old voice snapped and grumbled and refused to be placated. The two of them were in fact going to the same hotel that I was, the Hotel Chrysalis. The old voice seemed to fancy herself a great invalid, and the Hotel Chrysalis had hot springs that were supposed to be a sovereign cure. The younger voice was relentlessly optimistic about their beneficent qualities, and I wondered just what it was that bound her to her aunt.
The train pulled out of the station. Dr. Archambault had told me it was two hours to Herrenmouth; there was nothing either to do or to fear until we arrived there, and the steady vibration of the train was comforting, soporific. I fell into a deeper sleep, and so I do not know what occupation the two women found to beguile the time.
I was brought awake by a voice, a man’s this time, saying, “Mr. Booth? Is there a Mr. Booth in this compartment?”
am Mrs. Terpenning,” said the old voice magnificently.
“My orders are to meet a Mr. Booth,” the man said.
I opened my eyes and managed to wave feebly.
“Mr. Booth?” He was a middle-aged man, brown and square and competent. “I’m Parris. Mr. Marten sent me to meet you.”
?” the old voice said; I turned my head and got my first look at the two women. Mrs. Terpenning was a vulture-like dowager, not quite as ancient as I had expected. Rings encrusted every finger, and she wore a stiff black dress with a huge cameo at the throat. She was clearly the sort of woman who referred to her husband, when he came up in conversation, as “Mr. Terpenning.” She horrified me.
The other woman looked nothing like her aunt. She was thirtyish, plump and small-boned, with fair hair and pale blue eyes. I suppose she was pretty. Her dress was dark green and shabby, and she wore no jewelry at all. Her eyes widened as she got her first good look at my face; if I could have found a way to reassure her that she was not the first person to make a wrong assumption about my age based on my white hair, I would have. But even if I had been well, I would not have known what to say.
“Can you stand up, Mr. Booth?” Parris said.
I rose, slowly and totteringly, losing my grip on Dr. Archambault’s blanket as I did, and then stood, my feet entangled in plaid wool, unable either to move forward or to bend down to rescue the blanket. I could feel my knees shaking, and I knew how close I was to fainting again.
“Here, Mr. Booth.” Parris offered me his arm. I clutched it. He seemed able to take my weight, and after a moment the compartment stopped swaying.
“Could you pick up the blanket, miss?” he said to the younger woman.
“Rosemary,” Mrs. Terpenning said, “I forbid—”
The younger woman was already down on her knees, unwinding the blanket from my feet. Her hands were quick and deft. She was blushing when she rose again, and she pushed the blanket towards us without looking either Parris or myself in the face.
“Thank you, miss,” Parris said, and tucked the blanket under his free arm. “The porter will get your bag, Mr. Booth. Come this way.”
The world was starting to swim about me; I followed the pressure of Parris’s arm and prayed that I would neither walk into anything nor fall down. After an interminable nightmare of stairs and shoving crowds, Parris said, “Here’s the car, Mr. Booth,” and I was able at last to sit down again. I shut my eyes and waited for the brazen gongs in my head to stop swinging.
Parris evaporated for a time; I was half-asleep when he swung the driver’s-side door closed and said, “All set, Mr. Booth.”
I could not find my tongue or lips or teeth to say, thank you. Oh I am ill, a dismal little voice moaned, away back in my head. Parris started the car, and the vibrations roared up through my spine into my skull; I felt as if they were going to shake something loose. Dr. Archambault’s blanket was somehow over me again; I clutched at it and hoped faintly that it was not far to the Hotel Chrysalis.
I retain nothing of my first entrance to the hotel except a vast, vague impression of grayness. I think that it was beginning to rain as Parris extracted me from the car, and that the tall gray forbidding façade of the hotel became confused in my increasingly blurred and dizzy perceptions with the louring darkness of the sky. All I know is that the hotel seemed to stretch up forever.
The wall of clouds, I thought, and then I believe I fainted again.
For two weeks, I lay in a bedroom on the third floor of the Hotel Chrysalis, with at first no awareness of and then no interest in my surroundings. My dreams were rich and thin with fever, and they returned again and again to the book I had read as a child, in which the princess had lived in a castle surrounded by a wall of clouds. My father had given me the book, one of the few gifts I could remember receiving from him, and I had read it more times than I could count. The Siddonses, my guardians after my parents’ deaths, had not approved of reading novels, and Mrs. Siddons had taken the book away from me; I had never dared to ask her what she had done with it. My dreams resurrected the book vividly in all its details: the loneliness of the princess, the cruelty of the giant who held her captive, the bravery and perseverance of the man who rescued her. One of the things I had liked best about the book was that the hero was a scholar, not a prince or a great warrior or anything of that sort. I dreamed of his quest endlessly and would wake weak and shaking in the night with the giant’s laughter echoing in my ears.
Since I did not die, I eventually became better. The disease ran its course; having reached nadir, I gradually became stronger and more alert. I began to be able to look around my room, and I discovered letters from Dr. Archambault and Dr. Starkweather on my bedside table. A hideous bouquet of lilies squatted on the table by the window, sent by Miss Chatteris in proxy for all the docents. There was nothing from the Siddonses; I hoped that no one had told them I was ill.
Dr. Starkweather’s letter was merely a formal reassurance that the museum could get along without me until I was well enough to return. From Dr. Archambault’s letter—and from the grave, awed expression of the young woman who was my nurse—I gathered that no one had fully realized how ill I was until the second night after my arrival at the hotel, when my fever had reached 105 degrees.
I would have insisted on your going to a hospital,
Dr. Archambault wrote,
your wishes and Dr. Starkweather’s to the contrary, had I believed the problem to be anything greater than an influenza from which, it seemed to me at the time, you were already recovering.
I could not remember rejecting a hospital, but I have always loathed them, since the long months of my father’s last illness, and it remains my abiding conviction that had I been trapped in a hospital, I would have died. Once I was strong enough, I wrote back to Dr. Archambault, a brief and rather shakily-penned note, reassuring him as to the excellence of the care I had received at the Hotel Chrysalis and my belief that he had done the right thing.
The nurse said simply, “We thought you were a goner, Mr. Booth, but you pulled through all right.” She was a plain-faced girl, but vibrantly healthy. Her name was Molly Sefton. I do not think I would have liked her under any other set of circumstances, but as her patient, I loved her unreservedly, as a small child may love a favorite teacher.
She watched over me with a kind sternness, brooking no nonsense from anyone, including the manager of the hotel. He wished to come and express his personal gratification at my recovery, but Molly would have none of it. “There’ll be time enough for that later,” she said, plumping my pillows fiercely. “I won’t have you being harassed by men as ought to know better.” She herself was magnificently, restfully incurious; she did not ask about my work or my family or even about the old burn scars that made a mess of my left forearm. Molly’s only interest was in my recovery, and in that arena her questions were probing and her judgments acute. Even Dr. Bollivar, the hotel doctor, did not interfere with Molly’s decisions. As I later discovered, Dr. Bollivar spent most of his time, when not tending to the patients who genuinely needed his care, playing least-in-view with the hypochondriacs; once I was well enough to sit up and take notice, I almost never saw him again. He trusted Molly implicitly, and I think he was right to do so.
It was Molly who decided, two weeks and four days after my arrival at the Hotel Chrysalis, that I was ready to leave my room and take the afternoon sun on the hotel’s back terrace.
“I won’t leave you out there long, Mr. Booth,” she said, “but it ain’t good for you to stay breathing this old stale air all the time. So you come on with me and don’t fret.”
“But I don’t know anyone,” I said, clutching feebly at her as she helped me stand up.
“Well, they can introduce themselves if they want to,” she said. “There ain’t no monsters hereabouts, Mr. Booth. They’re all nice folks.”
I was unconvinced and uncomforted, but by that time Molly had started for the door, and it was either go with her or collapse to the floor where I was. My legs were terribly weak and wobbly; I felt as ungainly and defenseless as a newborn giraffe struggling to learn how to manage its knees.
My room had not been remarkable for personality, having sturdy, functional furniture, and walls of a clean, white, pleasing coolness. I was therefore entirely unprepared for the hallways of the hotel, with their brooding gas fixtures and glowering mahogany paneling. The carpets were all of a queer Indian design, like paisley seen in a fever-dream, and I kept having the impression that the shapes were moving just outside the edges of my peripheral vision. I clung to Molly’s arm, and though I was nearly a foot taller than she, she seemed to find no difficulty in holding me up.
The hotel’s back terrace was not really very far from my room, although that afternoon the pilgrimage felt like walking the Great Wall of China from one end to the other. We walked to the end of the hallway, where Molly summoned the elevator, a wrought-iron cage that I hated on sight.