IX.

There was a sorrow great enough to speed me

Into the arms of Death upon a time.

But now it seems the tears of others freed me

From old impediments against my climb

Toward higher forms of human evolution,

Past quaint ideas, as of vice and crime

And punishment. The drops of salt ablution

Are stains upon the others’ eyes, but I’m

Made purer in the sight of that pollution

That boasts of weakness. How the light does shine

Reflected in the moisture on the windows

Of souls whose simple and antique design

May rest at ease in orphans and in widows

Wherein their will subordinates to mine

And soon evaporates to cloudy billows

Before their eyes while I am in the prime

Location to behold how well it lingers—

An echo, an impression, or a rhyme

Behind the rhythm of my drumming fingers

As felt by mourners – phantoms on their spines.

And spurred by church bells and the dirges’ singers,

Pavlovian responses to these chimes

Shall make them all become the meal-bringers,

And I will be the one who comes to dine.

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Shadowed

When the wild-eyed man in dirty clothing accosted me in the park, I never would have known that it was Dennis had he not immediately declared his identity. Even once he did, it was hard to believe. How long had it been since I’d seen him last? One month, maybe two? In any event, it wasn’t long enough to explain the state he was in when he ran up to me and began spinning a paranoid tale and begging for help. Something awful must have happened to put him over the edge like that.

He could clearly tell that I’d struggled to recognize him, and I guess he took offense. “It’s me, Bobby! It really is me!” he insisted, touching his fingers to his face as if to hold his sunken features in place while we talked. “I can feel myself slipping away, though. If you don’t help me, the next time you see me, it won’t be me!”

Dennis and I had been very close once upon a time. We had even roomed together when we first started law school. But a year or so later, the pressure must have started to get to him. I saw less of him at classes, and then less of him in general. It looked like he wasn’t going to be able to hack it, and I guessed that it was the natural order of things for people to drift apart in situations like that.

I first started to suspect that something was seriously wrong with Dennis when I ran into him at a party at the end of second year. It was the sort of scene where drugs were flowing like water and I quickly got to wondering what he had gotten into when he cornered me and started babbling about “something” that had been following him. Whatever had brought it on, his bad trip involved disembodied shadows and dark allies; and he seemed to be recounting some half-remembered mythology about shapeshifters or doppelgangers, or something of the sort.

“Look at my eyes!” he shouted, leaning uncomfortably close to me and clouding my glasses with the alcohol on his breath. “What color are they?”

By way of reply, I merely shrugged to make it known that whatever his point was, it eluded me. “They’re supposed to be bright blue,” he continued. “But they’re not, are they? They’re grey.”

“Okay…” I answered, knowing only that he was right about their grey appearance at that moment, in that lighting. But as to how that compared to a few months earlier, when he and I were seeing more of each other, I couldn’t say. It had never occurred to me to make a mental note of the color or the brightness of my friend’s eyes. How often do you really take note of such things?

Picking up bits and pieces of his broken narrative, I gathered that Dennis believed he had been seeing an amorphous figure lurking behind him over a period several weeks. He said that it began with just a feeling, and that that feeling coalesced into a blur or a haze in his peripheral vision, which disappeared when he turned to look at it. Eventually, though, when he was walking alone he would catch longer glimpses of something lingering behind him – something with the shape of a human being, but featureless and all in black.

Eventually he came to the point about his eyes when he told me that he’d been leaving a bar at 1 AM a few nights earlier when, for the first time, the figure drew near enough for him to confront it face-to-face. But when he wheeled in its direction, he found no face looking back at him, only a pair of eyes. Minutes later, when he’d run home in terror and sought to calm himself before the bathroom mirror, his panic doubled when he found a changed man looking back at him.

“They were my eyes, Bobby! It took my eyes from me! And it’s still out there and I don’t know what else it wants.”

I offered to get him some coffee, wanting as much to escape as to help him start coming down. But when he registered that I wasn’t taking his tall tales seriously, he vanished into the crowd and probably out the door, looking nervously over both shoulders.

I didn’t see him for a long time after that, and when I did it was only in passing. He paid me little mind and his shaky appearance led me to believe that he was in the grip of the DTs; and if he recognized me at all, he probably knew that I wouldn’t help him in the way he wanted me to. But his eyes lingered on me long enough for me to recognize how sallow and sunken his appearance had become, how much he had been drained of his former color.

That was probably the worst I saw of him until he confronted me in that park. It was by no means the only time, but it was then that his deterioration seemed most pronounced. There were occasions after that when I spotted him, or even briefly spoke with him. And while I judged him to be even less himself, he seemed to be on the upswing. In fact, he told me as much. His color was faded but seemed to be returning, as were his strength and bulk. “I’m getting better,” he said before hurrying off amidst promises that we would reconnect at a later date.

I assumed it was an appropriate sense of shame that kept him from lingering too long, and I assumed that it was for the same reason that he spoke to me with his eyes averted. They flicked up at me from time to time, though. And while I did notice, I didn’t immediately think anything of their bright blue color. I guess bad decisions really can drain the color from your eyes, at least temporarily.

By the time of our meeting in the park, Dennis had apparently suffered a relapse. All of his progress toward recovery had vanished and his panicked paranoia had returned with such a force that it was impossible for me to stand and listen to him for long. It made me terrifically sad to see him slipping away, and I could think of no way of replying to his desperation other than by being perfectly frank.

“Look, Dennis, I don’t know what you’re on, but you’ve got to commit yourself to kicking it. It’s killing you.”

“Killing me?” he scoffed, as tears welled up in his eyes. “Killing me?! You don’t understand, Bobby. I could handle it if I was dying. But that isn’t it at all. It’s like everything around me is dying. I finally know where this is going. It’s not going to let me die. It’s going to make me like it used to be: just a walking shadow.”

I knew that in his mind this was not a metaphor. But I took it that way and hoped it would do some good to reply in kind. “I’m sure it seems that way, Dennis. I’m sure you’re right in a way. But whatever you’re on, it is going to kill you.”

“I’m not on anything!” he screamed loud enough to make me take a step back. A moment later I turned to walk away and he reached out and clutched at my sleeve. “Please, wait!” he cried. “It can only steal from me when I’m alone! Please, we’re old friends. You’ve got to help me!”

He released his grip on his own as I continued moving away. Unable to look him in the face, I said, “You do need help, Dennis. But I’m not the one to give it to you. But if you get through this on your own, I’ll be around.” As I walked off and left him behind me, my heart sank when I heard that he was weeping.

Dennis disappeared more fully from my life after that. And I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t really think of him until I started to see him again more than six months later. But when I did, I swiftly took comfort in the belief that my final words of encouragement had probably helped to get him back on the straight and narrow. Our interactions at the party and in the park seemed entirely forgotten, and an altogether new man came gradually back into the orbit of my social circle.

Physically, he was exactly the same as the Dennis I had known two years earlier. He came before me and my friends clean-shaven, in freshly pressed clothing, visibly happy to be among us. He re-enrolled in school, albeit in a different program, and he generally seemed to take a renewed interest in life. It was not the same life that he’d lived before, and there have even been times when it seemed to me that I was speaking to someone I had met for the first time only recently. But I suppose that’s only natural. After all, does anyone really go through hardship and change and long periods of loneliness and come out of it on the other side as the same person? I doubt it.

Part of me feels like I lost my old friend for good when I turned away from him in that park, or when he slipped out of sight at that party. But that’s silly, isn’t it? My old friend is right here whenever we feel like seeing each other. And when we do, I experience none of that sadness that overcame me when I saw Dennis from a distance all those months ago, looking like half the man he used to be.

Still, that feeling isn’t entirely gone. I still experience inexplicable twinges of it from time to time when I see someone or something on a deserted street and I vaguely think of it as having the shape of my friend, receding away from me. But the feeling never lasts long and it is becoming less and less frequent. Soon it will be nothing but a shadow.

VIII.

Although her body hadn’t been discovered

I watched the circus creatures on the news

As they were dancing for the drones who covered

The shocking murder. How I was bemused

By mama’s words, pathetic in their pleading

Between the testimonies of her peers.

Monotonous, their voices kept receding

Toward Nothing, save for one that struck my ears

As filled with ire and righteous indignation

And boastful threats to targets yet unknown.

I thought to offer him an invitation

To meet me and to bring his rage alone.

For I had questions: Was it his belief

That he could match me, and did he suppose

That in my presence he could be the thief

Of power while still clad in human clothes?

The ship of Life Itself is duly sinking.

Did he believe that he could make it rise

By casting weakness off while never thinking

Of why it had been something to despise?

If he would glimpse my Truth, I’d grant permission,

And thusly I would see what I could glean

From all that anger prefacing admission

That he can’t see the things that I have seen.

VII.

(Previously: I. II. III. IV. V. VI.)

 

A storm by day or night leaves diff’rent traces

Upon the soul, but in the present cases,

Before the day makes her depart,

The Night is ripped apart,

But proudly, as to bear her violent heart.

The brightness only helps me see it clearly

And hold its beating rhythm much more nearly

In sync with mine when turned away

From searing light of day

To offer up a place where dark can stay.

So now I see the ratio is shifting,

My new perspective delicately lifting

The anger into gentle times,

Derision into rhymes,

And cryptic weather into sunny climes.

Now with renewed desire I have been glancing

At Endless Night, who meets my eyes, romancing

Me in the morning when I rise

To meet with pitch black skies

Because the dark is married in my eyes.

My gaze has made the day itself benighted

And I could hardly be much more delighted

To know that my inspired sight

Sees farther now despite

The daytime storms with flashes of the Light.

The Croft and Dalton Cats

This longish narrative poem (136 lines) was inspired by actual reports of missing black cats in North Yorkshire in the United Kingdom. The more fantastic details are, of course, complete invention.


black cat

Though small town cops may know quite well when family pets are missed,

Reports of absent cats and dogs are typically dismissed.

But calls that trickled in from ‘round the old North Yorkshire station

Have duly spurred police to open an investigation.

 

Now, Mrs. Boyd and her three kids, aged five and eight and ten

Are worried they will never see their kitty cats again.

They’ve asked of all the townsfolk, and their posters are adorning

Most every shop and lamppost, so that hope delays their mourning.

 

The posters name one cat as Arthur and the other Austen.

For two years they had played outside and never gotten lost in

The woods by their suburban home, the town of Croft-on-Tees,

Until they seemed to suddenly be swallowed by the trees.

 

When they had just been kittens they had set the Boyds atwitter

At being welcomed in as twins who’d sprung from the same litter.

These brother-cats became well-known explorers, both of which

Were famous with the neighbors for their fur as black as pitch.

 

But even in adventuring, the two were rarely parted,

And in the sight of strangers were appropriately guarded.

So when one cat returned alone, the family’s consternation

Was just a hint of what would grow upon this strange foundation.

 

“I think,” said Mrs. Boyd, “that Austen must have started grieving,

Except his twitching ears imply some message he’s receiving.”

And two weeks after Arthur up and vanished, then the other

Demanded to be let back out, and went to join his brother.

 

If someone went and trapped two cats, what are the odds they’d be

Both black, each independent, but from just one family?

The neighbors know they’re missing, and it rather seems absurd

That even dead or dying, they’ve been neither seen nor heard.

 

When one more week had passed, there came a neighbor’s tearful knocking.

Her kitty, Tom, had not returned when last he went out walking.

“Our town is such a lovely place for cats to make a home in,”

She said, “but now that three have gone, is this some kind of omen?

 

When I regain composure, I’ll go knock on other doors.

I started here because my pet is similar to yours.

The cats around this neighborhood must number in the dozens,

But no black fate has fallen on Tom’s different-colored cousins.”

 

Now Mrs. Boyd, a lecturer renowned for skills of reason,

Has cast a superstitious eye upon the coming season.

Throughout the end of summer she had searched the roads and ditches

Until she shocked her neighbors with her mentioning of witches.

 

The neighbor, Jackie Schmidt then struck the townsfolk just as weird

By eerily insisting Tom had simply disappeared.

“They may have all been taken,” she admitted, “but one wonders

What purpose there could be in nabbing black cats, and no others.”

 

A call in late September from a nearby town accorded

With Mrs. Boyd’s conclusion this was something very sordid.

A farmer called Jane Parlour wasn’t very optimistic

About her cats’ behavior– called it “uncharacteristic”.

 

A mile down the road upon the near side of the river,

Two felines kept positions by the door to growl and quiver.

She said, “I would have paid more mind to their unseemly hissing

If I had known that this was just when Arthur had gone missing.

 

A myriad of cats patrol my home from ground to attic,

And never once have they been known for acting so erratic.

The others all seemed normal as they chased the mice and starlings.

The only difference is these two are black, like both your darlings.

 

If you would listen further, ma’am, my story still grows stranger.

For I do not believe my cats were warding off some danger

That lurked outside or spread its scent across the forest floor.

Instead, they barred my exit with their backs turned to the door.

 

This went on nightly ‘til at once they turned around and made me

Unlatch the door whose opening they lately had forbade me.

I watched them walk off side-by-side, their home life roughly spurned,

Until the darkness from their fur could no more be discerned.

 

I pined for them for several days while calling them inside,

Then just as the last storm of summer flared and swiftly died

I heard two simple meows and so I went out in my wellies

To find them in the barn, both nursing full and drooping bellies.

 

Although I cannot match your family’s sense of loss and yearning,

I know two other cats in Dalton left without returning.

There’s not much more to tell, I am afraid. However, lastly:

These cats were also black, my dear. You needn’t even ask me.”

 

It was around that time when someone told the Yorkshire bobbies

To make a case of missing cats, and maybe cultish hobbies.

Though skeptical, they took to asking what some folk had seen

In this the witching season leading up to Halloween.

 

While some investigators griped of unattended jails,

They sat among suburbanites to hear their wild tales.

And further toward the countryside, the evidence that mounted

Was largely seen as natural and eagerly discounted.

 

Another Dalton farmer tried in vain to calm his horses

While showing off a couple badly mangled chicken corpses.

The cops stood by and listened as he ticked off all the boxes

For witchcraft-panic when he cried, “This wasn’t done by foxes!”

 

And then police were asked to help in getting to the bottom

Of incidents reported on the first full day of autumn.

A village child awoke to hear a howling on the breeze

And looked to see five sets of glowing eyes within the trees.

 

Though no one quite believes her, still the little girl knows

That she has seen the missing cats hold council with the crows.

The grownups paid no mind when she insisted they were dancing

Or when she said the frightful scene was nonetheless entrancing.

 

Investigators followed up, however, when she told them

About the human shadow that would meet the cats and hold them

Aloft with ceremony by the neatly tended fire

For upwards of an hour while the smoke kept rising higher.

 

In fact, police have found a pile of campfire ash still cooling

Where hikers say they heard a choir of cawing mixed with mewling.

The constable has raked away the ash, always displaying

Dispassion, although some suspect he knows more than he’s saying.

 

It’s said that farther onward, slaughtered in a ring of pebbles,

They turned up several animals, like offerings to devils.

The cats were not among them, as initially expected,

But signs of feline paws and fur would later be detected.

 

Forensics have concluded something no one understands:

Implausibly, this carnage wasn’t caused by human hands.

“But what has this to do with Croft and Dalton?” some protested.

“It’s just a silly story. We’re already too invested.

 

You know we can’t conclude that these are credible reports.

We might as well start searching for old hags with bulbous warts.

For cats aren’t known to run together, hunting in a pack,

Much less to place their rodent-prey all neatly in a stack.”

 

Then some days later someone called the cops in sudden fear

And said the same dire fate had now befallen adult deer.

“We didn’t stick around to search but made a swift retreat

When crows descended thickly on the body like a sheet.

 

But as we ran away, we thought we heard an eerie yowling,

Like half a dozen cats around the dead deer’s feathered cowling.”

Police arrived upon the scene a half an hour later,

And though they found no cats, their horror couldn’t have been greater.

 

The first man to investigate knelt down and sharply scowled.

“My God, this massive creature’s been completely disemboweled!”

It seems that claws and beaks match every miniscule incision

Save one that opened up the hind with surgical precision.

 

On one hand it appears the situation’s escalating.

And on the other, some suspect that something worse is waiting.

With entrails splayed across the wood, a path of grim destruction,

The Parlour cats keep pacing like they’re waiting for instruction.

 

There’s something odd afoot around these towns upon the Tees,

And those who own black cats must plug their ears against the pleas

For their release; they must shut out the unfamiliar lowing

Until there is a clearer sense of where they keep on going.

 

So lest another local cat abruptly disappears

Keep watch for any twitching of their little radar ears.

There’s something calling out to them, and as Samhain grows nearer

Its voice is growing louder, more insistent, yes, and clearer.

Castle in the Clouds

The following forty lines of verse were inspired by this image from Jeanette Andromeda, her latest Horror Haikuesday offering:

Horror Haikuesday - 17-10-10
“Taking the #HorrorHaikuesday Path,” c/o HorrorMade

 

I have this recollection from when I was just a child

Of castles growing in the clouds like mushrooms in the wild.

The stonework would reveal itself above my fields of play

But crumble underneath the sun when grownups looked my way.

 

Although I was a Catholic boy and pious in my fashion,

The architecture would arouse a most un-Christian passion.

I knew the first commandment was to brush them off as frauds,

But how could I deny I’d seen the dwelling place of gods?

 

I heard their songs and saw their shadows leaning from the roofs

I glimpsed the nearby stables, felt the beat of phantom hooves.

So how could I ignore I’d seen them beckon from their towers,

Or that their dreamlike visits made the seconds feel like hours?

 

I know you’ll just dismiss it as a child’s imagination.

But underneath the arches I felt physical elation

As if I could have crossed the very sky without a care,

Until I turned around and saw my mother standing there.

 

Her eyes betrayed such ignorance. Was this adulthood’s lot,

Or were my skybound friends just too elusive to be caught?

I wondered how much closer I could get by moving farther

Away from the protection I regarded as a bother.

 

I hid among the trees and watched the castles coalescing

In vivid detail. Innocence is such a perfect blessing!

Then brick-by-brick and stone-by-stone, I saw the path descending

And knew that this was not a dream’s beginning, but an ending.

 

Although the trail was cold beneath my feet the climb was easy.

The fragrances and sights ahead seemed tailor-made to please me.

But somewhere at the midway point, my memory grows hazy

And if I think of nothing else, I think I may be crazy.

 

I’m told I’ve always lived within this castle by the shore.

I’m told my childhood hamlet was a dream and nothing more.

I’m told that all my early memories are simply lies.

But if I cannot trust in this, I can’t believe my eyes.

 

In thinking of my journey here, the last thing I remember

Are mists that gathered round my home that distant, cool September.

I laid my hand against them as against a solid wall

And pressed my ear to cottons that absorbed my mother’s call.

 

I’ve never glimpsed her face since then, nor any living soul

Beyond the white and blue expanse of ocean, even though

I’ve looked out from this parapet since I was aged just seven.

I hope that she’s content believing I have gone to Heaven.

VI.

The pressure in the atmosphere increasing,

A storm appears to gather in the sky.

Its moisture mocks the conscience that’s releasing

A tear from my still all-too-human eye.

It threatens my Becoming’s extirpation,

As lighting strives to rend apart the dark.

But even this begets the inspiration

For striking up another deadly spark.

With each contestant equally appalling,

This inner war may dodge a simple end.

As moral outrage carries on its squalling,

My darker soul continues to descend

As if a storm cloud sinking past a mountain

And growing denser, ready to extol

The rain that it sends forth as from a fountain –

A force of nature given man’s control.

The stoic ground and gentle-flowing rivers

Eventu’lly no longer can convey

The deluge that their Father Sky delivers

To places deep in earth and far away.

And so I’m confident that with persistence

My moral heart will learn thus to relent

And listen to the brutal storm’s insistence

That time will prove it had been Heaven-sent.

V.

When still the fresh spilled blood was gently dappling

The forest floor, I eagerly resolved

To make a swift return and plant a sapling,

To watch it grow until I felt absolved

Of former virtues that had seen me squander

The opportunity to truly be

A force of nature. Now I’m made to ponder

The cultivation of a mighty tree.

There’s something here without, and more within me

That stand to flourish equally upon

The first of vile deeds remaining thinly

Concealed beneath the soil and forest lawn.

I wonder if the tree will grow much stronger

By stripping flesh from bone. I think it will.

Its hungry roots may stretch a little longer

In hopes of tracking down another kill.

And likewise, even now I feel my spirit

Is reaching past the limits of my form

In search of something– drawing ever near it:

The sturdiness to weather any storm.

For now, however, wind and rain pose dangers

To fledgling growth and all it represents.

And so, on guard, I dodge the eyes of strangers

Until, in full, my former self repents.

IV.

They both had still been young with life ascendant –

My lover-victim and my human shell –

But died in verdant spring with its attendant

Fresh blooms that rise to earth from deep in Hell.

I cherished well the image of her dying

‘Midst nature so effulgent. I could tell

The consummation of her deathly sighing

Gave power to the breeze’s sudden swell.

Imagining her spirit swept within it

I see a metamorphosis at hand

And I perceive that I must underpin it

By spreading fuel throughout the hungry land.

If I had killed her in another season

I worry that I wouldn’t understand

As well the perfect sentiment and reason

For catering to such a grim demand.

The corpse not even yet begun decaying,

My hands and clothing stained a vibrant red,

The self-same colored flowers are displaying

The life that rises in my victim’s stead.

While this is only natural predation,

In time will all of nature learn to dread

The way my unimpeded domination

O’er life proceeds from power o’er the dead.

III.

Before I’d cast myself into the ocean

My mind withstood a flood of memory.

Some fading part of me then had the notion

To rediscover whom I used to be.

I knocked upon the door of my first lover.

Despite myself, I searched her eyes and found

A sentiment that struggled to uncover

Desires to make my mission less profound.

Within my head, competing thoughts then wrestled

To dominate that meeting, then my life.

In dreams one moment I was sweetly nestled

Against her breast; the next, it held my knife.

Our recollections each seemed avaricious

The more we spoke of all the things we’d missed.

I made a point to not seem too ambitious.

She asked me in. I said, “If you insist.”

And as I sat and watched my lover beaming,

My mind began to lead me down the path

To normal life with all its peaceful seeming,

But further on, to truer aftermath.

And thus, although I’d rather not have hurt her,

Expressions changed as I pulled on my glove.

The consequence is clear for failing murder

But unforeseeable for failing love.