Read The Spirit Wood Online

Authors: Robert Masello

Tags: #Fiction, #Horror, #Erotica, #General

The Spirit Wood

Ancient Blood, Stirred to New Desire . . .

There was a banging on the bathroom door.

“Meg! Meg!”

Peter thrust himself onto her, one more time, then ripped himself away. She heard him hurl the shower curtain back and leap out of the tub, just as the lock on the door broke and their friend Byron staggered in.

“Meg! what the—”

Before he could find the light, Peter charged into him like a raging bull, and sent him sprawling. When Meg turned, Byron was struggling to his feet.

Peter had made for the balcony. Byron ran out onto it, just in time to hear a splash from below, in the fountain. There was a dark figure, like the statue itself come terribly to life, clambering over the rim, shaking itself like a wet dog, and then loping toward the shelter of the dark, inviting woods. . . .

Also by Robert Masello

Private Demons

Black Horizon

Raising Hell

THE

SPIRIT WOOD

Robert Masello

Premier Digital Publishing - Los Angeles

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Copyright © 1987 by Robert Masello

All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever.

ISBN: 0-671-63572-7

eISBN: 978-1-937957-30-8

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For Tom,

whose reading light was always on in the study,

and Sonia,

who gave me a taste for the eerie and occult.

Acknowledgments

At many points in writing this book, I was desperately in need of expertise, and I'd like to thank all those who bailed me out. My brother Steven and his wife, Mary Joan, for their knowledge of the classics; James Kearney, for his help with the Greek language; Jean File, for sculpting and pottery information; and Linda Stewart, for all the shop talk. For moral support and encouragement, my thanks to my brother David and to Patrice Adcroft.

Prologue

I
T WAS A
game, some kind of game they were playing with him. The music of the pipes was more beautiful than ever before. One minute the melody seemed to spring from within a distant grove of trees, the next it burst out just behind him, so that he whirled on the vast, darkened lawn, his silk robe billowing open in the evening breeze, his fat white body almost luminous in the moonlight. He took another swallow from the bottle in his hand.

They're playing with me,
he thought.
The bastards don't know who's boss around here anymore. They damn well better find out. They damn well better find out
tonight.

A white figure—a young girl in a long white dress— appeared for a moment behind the gazebo. The old man laughed to himself, and staggered across the lawn toward her. “Come to Papa,” he croaked. “Come to your fat horny papa.”

He could just make out her dark eyes shining, her slender body in the thin white dress. Their eyes met; she stared at him solemnly, then turned and disappeared again into the blackness of the trees that bordered the lawn. He slumped against one of the gazebo's wooden columns, his chest heaving, his breath hoarse in his throat. The music of the flute was ringing, sweetly, insistently, in his ears. He drained the straw-
covered bottle and threw it into the trees; as it cut through the branches before striking the ground, he thought he heard a low, girlish laugh, thought he saw an indistinct black shape shift quickly in the shadows. The salt air from the bay was suddenly tinged with the strong odor of a stable.

So it's a party you're having, a party and I'm not invited. Well, guess who's coming anyway.
He shrugged off his robe and, vigorously massaging his crotch, shouted, “Guess who's coming anyway!” into the dark stand of trees. His words rang out, then died on the night air; from the boat dock at the foot of the hill, the sound of the flute wafted up to him. Turning, he could dimly perceive the figure of the girl—or perhaps another, just like her—dancing alone, slowly, at the end of his private pier. This time he'd have her, he thought. This time she wouldn't slip through his fingers. He stumbled down the lawn toward her. “Papa's coming,” he muttered. “Papa's coming to get you.”

The wooden planks of the pier were cold and rough beneath his feet. He approached the girl warily, his naked belly protruding, his hairy arms outstretched to keep her from gliding past. The cool breeze off the water filled her gown like a white sail, and the moonlight outlined her limbs as she danced. As if in a trance, she swayed to the music of the invisible flute, seemingly oblivious to him as he reached out to touch her sleeve, and then as he drew her toward him, and roughly caressed her body. Clutching the thick black hair that fell to her waist, he bent her backwards, burying his face in her neck; the olive skin was smooth and cool, and richly fragrant of laurel and lilac. Her mouth, when he kissed her, tasted of wine, sweet red wine, and her breasts were firm and cold in his hands.

“Did you think you could run from Papa?” he asked. “Did you think Papa wouldn't find you?” He kissed her again, long and hard, but she remained
impassive, her arms hanging listlessly by her sides. In her eyes, black and deep as the ocean water surging beneath the pier, he could see nothing—no desire, no fear, not even disgust. He longed to see something,
anything,
reflected there, and he tore savagely at the bodice of her gown. The fabric shredded like tissue, falling away from her narrow shoulders, slipping down her body, rippling like sea foam around her feet. She stood naked before him, and when his gaze returned again to her shining black eyes, they were staring beyond him, over his shoulder, at something suddenly clattering down the dock toward them, something swift and ponderous that made the wooden boards heave and groan underfoot. The girl leapt from his grasp, and even as the old man whirled around, he could feel the hot breath scorching his face, could see the angry yellow eyes glowing above him against the night sky. He threw up his arms against the flashing hooves that crashed downward, again and again, until his body was sent hurtling off the end of the pier and into the chill black waters of the sound . . .

From the crest of the hill, just below the lighted terrace of the house, the unseen flute played a brief, derisive threnody.

I

Inheritance

One

A
NY QUESTIONS?"

Sullivan's hand went up, just as Peter had expected it to.

“Yes, Mr. Sullivan?”

“Will the exam be open book?”

“Yes, Mr. Sullivan, the exam will be open book. You can use anything you're capable of carrying in on your back, including a grad student if necessary.”

The rest of the seminar laughed, somewhat obligingly, and started to gather up their books and papers. The bell tower clanged the end of the period.

“And anyone who hasn't turned in his second term
paper yet, please drop it off by Thursday at the departmental office.”

As the class shuffled out the door, Peter pulled his own books and papers into a pile. With the spring term almost over, each class period seemed to last longer than ever. And about midway through this one, his left arm had started hurting him again. He moved it now, gingerly, in its sling. There was less pain in the hand than there'd been, the purple bruises on his knuckles had disappeared, but the ache in his forearm hadn't let up much. He wondered if, on cold or rainy days, he'd always have that ache to remind him of the accident, and its aftermath. Then, before he could stop himself, he thought again of Meg. What sort of ache would
she
have? How long would it take for
her
to get over what had happened?

He took off his glasses, cleaned the lenses on his sling, then slipped them back on again.
Forget it,
he told himself.
Just get on with things. Just get on.
He picked up his books with his right hand and locked the seminar room by kicking the door closed behind him.

Outside, in the last of the afternoon sun, his friend Byron was waiting for him. Tall and gangly, with a thatch of brown hair that seldom saw a brush, Byron always reminded Peter—though he'd never say so—of Ichabod Crane. Ichabod Crane, with a Ph.D. in classics and a golden retriever named Diogenes. With whom he was right now playing fetch.

“Hail, Lazarus,” Byron said as Peter emerged into the quadrangle. “Ready for a little celebration?” He lifted from the pocket of his tweed sport coat the top of a wine bottle.

“So you accepted the offer?” Peter said.

“Yep. Not one hour ago, I called Omaha and said that after reviewing all my options, I'd decided to accept the job after all.”

“Wise decision,” Peter said with a smile. They both knew that Byron's only other option was to return
home to Georgia and live above his father's pharmacy.

Diogenes, the stick clamped between his teeth, raced up to Peter, his bushy tail wagging furiously.

“Sorry, boy, I don't have a free hand to throw with.”

“When will you?” Byron asked, falling into step with Peter. They walked around the campus sundial, littered with undergraduates cramming for their finals, and headed toward town. “Is the arm going to keep you from finishing the dissertation this summer?”

“No way,” Peter said. “I got a note from Chairman Dunlop telling me I had just one more semester left on my fellowship. I've got to finish this summer.”

They passed through the main gates and onto Garrison Street. Peter kicked a can past the bank, the grocery, the shoe repair shop. With his books under one arm, his curly black hair, his boyish good looks, he could easily have passed for one of the college seniors; at some stores in town, he was automatically given the student discount. With what he earned, he was glad to get it.

But Byron couldn't help seeing the subtle changes that had been wrought in him, the toll that the last couple of months had taken. Where he used to talk all the time, now he was silent for minutes at a stretch. Where his dark eyes used to hold your own and draw you out, now they avoided your gaze, or stared vacantly, as they were just then, at the crumpled tin can. There was a hollowness to him that cried to be filled up. Byron didn't envy Meg the job of doing it.

The grad student housing was about a half-mile from campus; it was laid out like a long, low motel, each apartment unit getting a street door and one parking space in front of the building. Diogenes, who'd been there many times before, was already waiting impatiently for them on the front stoop. Before Peter could put his key in the door, Meg opened it with a grand, theatrical sweep. She was wearing her white Mexican
7
dress, the one she reserved for especially festive occasions.

“Ever since Peter called from the office, I've been waiting to congratulate you,” she said to Byron. “Congratulations.”

Byron, looking pleased but embarrassed, accepted a hug. Diogenes barreled past them all and into the apartment. Peter dropped his books by the door.

“What can I get you?” he asked Byron. “A beer?”

Byron produced the wine bottle from his baggy sport coat.

“That will have to wait,” said Meg, bending down to scratch Diogenes on the top of his head. “In honor of the occasion, I've made a special treat—mint juleps. Just like you grew up with, By.” She stood up. “Let me go and get them.” But as she passed Peter, he touched her lightly on the elbow.

“Not for me,” he said in a low, admonitory tone. “Just a club soda.”

“Oh, honey,” she said, also in a low voice, “one mint julep won't hurt—”

“Not for me.”

Byron, pretending not to notice, sat down on the sofa; it was missing one leg and wobbled dangerously.

“So what kind of classics department have they got out there?” Peter asked Byron, to change the subject. “I can't say I've heard too much about Cumberland University.”

“Nobody has. It's not exactly Oxford.” He was telling Peter what he'd managed to glean from the brochures in the grad school office when Meg returned with the drinks—two mint juleps and one club soda. Tossing her long blond hair over her shoulder, she lifted her glass in a toast. “I don't know what we'll do for a best friend,” she said, “but here's to your new job anyway.” She started to sip from her glass, then suddenly stopped. “You
did
take it, didn't you? Peter just said you'd had the offer.”

“Yes, yes,” Byron assured her. “As we used to say down South, I did them the honor.”

“Then we can have dinner as planned,” she said, and sat down beside him, so lightly the sofa didn't even wobble. Diogenes, as was his habit, laid himself ceremoniously across her feet. “Did their offer come as a complete surprise, or were you sort of expecting it?”

“A total surprise,” Byron said. “The chairman of the department interviewed me for about twenty minutes at a classics conference last February. We talked a little bit about my dissertation and a lot about the sherry. He introduced me to his wife—the spitting image of Henry Kissinger, by the way—and that was about it.”

“Maybe Mrs. Kissinger put in a good word for you,” Peter said, raising his eyebrows suggestively.

“Pray God she didn't. I'm about ready to give up on romance as it is.” He rubbed one finger along the rim of his glass.

“But what about that woman in the astrophysics department,” Meg asked, “the one you went out with last week?” She felt so bad for Byron; she knew he was lonely, but most of the time he was too shy to do anything about it.

“Another disaster,” he said. “Her idea of a really good time is listening to intergalactic static over the headphones in the observatory. I tried it, twice—it's not for me.”

Who else could she fix him up with, Meg wondered. All the other women in her pottery co-op were either married or seriously attached. Was there someone she'd been overlooking?

“Not that it matters,” Byron was saying. “It wouldn't be fair to toy with someone's affections now that my ticket's been punched for Omaha. Maybe when I get out West, I can send away for a mail-order bride. You think they still do that?”

Meg laughed and laid one hand on his arm. “I wouldn't count on it, By.” Diogenes stirred and raised his head. “Someone here knows that it's time for dinner,” Meg said, gently drawing her feet out from under him. “If you all would care to take those drinks into the dining room with you—”

“Otherwise known as the kitchen,” Peter interjected.

“The oysters Rockefeller are served.”

She glanced over at Peter, who looked surprised. Oysters, she knew, were a real stretch for their budget. But she'd wanted to make this night special. It had been so long since they'd had anything to celebrate . . . not since she'd gotten the news from her gynecologist, in fact. So when Peter had called that morning, she'd taken twenty dollars from their general operating funds, kept in a blue glazed pot she'd made just before their wedding, and gone out and splurged, on oysters and asparagus and fresh chicken breasts cut by the butcher. After her bath, she'd put on the Mexican dress, long and full enough to cover the laceration still evident on her knee.

The kitchen table looked as elegant as Meg could make it, with a big bowl of flowers and the white linen tablecloth that her Aunt Alice had given them as a wedding present. Byron, the guest of honor, was seated in the chair that still had both arms on it. Over dinner, he regaled Meg and Peter with familiar, but always welcome, stories of his Dixie boyhood, of his father's drugstore and his own Aunt Theodora, who coated everything she ate, from ice cream to steak, with a generous layer of chunky-style peanut butter. He enjoyed telling the stories, that was true, but tonight he was especially conscious of their effect; he knew he was providing his friends with some much-needed relief. At one point, he noticed Peter, caught up in a story, absentmindedly interlace his fingers with Meg's, just as he might have done months earlier. Now
if only he could be made, consciously, to forgive himself . . .

Dessert was Byron's favorite treat—Twinkies, with a little colored candle stuck in each one. “I know it's not your birthday,” Meg explained, “but I really felt these needed a little dressing up.” Peter gave him a copy of Machiavelli's
The Prince.
"You never know,” he said, “it could help you to get tenure.” When they were all through, Peter tossed the silverware into the sink with his good hand and told Byron he'd meet him the next day, at their usual table in the student center, to find out how the rest of the classics department greeted his job news. Meg walked him to the door; Diogenes scooted outside to inspect the garbage cans at the curb.

“Thanks for everything,” Byron said. “It was nice to have someone to celebrate with.”

“Thank
you,”
Meg said, leaning her head back against the doorframe. Her hair, in the light from the streetlamp, appeared almost silver. “This was one of the few meals Peter has managed to eat sitting down lately. Even in an apartment the size of this, half the time I don't know where he is.” She hooked a stray wisp of hair behind one ear. “Give me your honest opinion,” she said. “Do you think he's getting over it? I mean, you see him when I don't, when he's teaching class, or up at the library. Does he seem to you like he's coming around again, like he's coming back to life?”

“I think he did tonight.”

She stood, considering. “I think he seemed better tonight, too. But that's because you were here. Most of the time it's still like I'm living with a shadow; I can see him, I know he's there, but no matter what I do, I can't really touch him. It starts to make me feel a little like a ghost, too. I can't even get him interested in the oldest sport of all anymore,” she said, with a little self-conscious shrug. Then regretting that she'd said it,
afraid that she might have made Byron feel uncomfortable, she quickly went on. “But maybe when the term's over, and he can get back to concentrating on his dissertation, things will pick up. I think he'll feel a lot less pressured then.”

“I'm sure he will,” Byron said. “He's got a lot on his mind right now.”

Diogenes barked from across the street, where he'd finished with the garbage cans. “I think you're being paged,” Meg said. “Congratulations again on the job.”

Byron leaned down and pecked her on the top of the head. “Buck up,” he said, tucking one finger under her chin. “He'll come around.” Her eyes, he thought, were the blue of Dresden china. Turning quickly, he walked away, each of his steps punctuated by the soft, rhythmic
thwap
of a loose sole on one of his shoes. Diogenes disappeared around the corner.

The moment the door was closed again, Meg could hear the sound of the shower running. Peter had always been a fan of the hot shower, but lately it seemed as if he couldn't get clean enough no matter how long he was in there. And he locked the bathroom door, which he'd never used to do. By the time she heard the water turned off, she'd undressed, put on her nightgown, and slipped into bed with an Agatha Christie mystery. Peter came out wearing a faded pair of blue pyjamas. That was another manifestation of his new-found modesty. The most he used to wear to bed had been a pair of loose boxer shorts; now he always had on pyjamas, and a robe, too, if he got up for a midnight snack. Anything, it seemed to Meg, to discourage intimacy.

“I left all the dishes to soak,” he said, and dropping his sling on the night table, got into bed. “You really pulled out all the stops tonight. I don't think Byron's had a feast like that in years.”

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