XVI.

I come from she whom Swinburne calls

Every man’s mother and lover.

I wrote the line upon the walls

In blood, that they might recover

From that revulsion which one needs

To stay tied to moral duty.

Now may they recognize these deeds

For their grace and subtle beauty.

And may they stand reciting verse

In carnage, rosy and pretty

And feel they’re honored by the curse

That is visiting their city.

You fools, your outraged minds are bland

As old-style hats and coats. You’ll see

That handing misery to man

Can be a type of charity.

It may not be the Christian kind

But pious thought often clashes

With greater truths that poets find

In Grecian urns, full of ashes.

Upon William Blake’s suggestion

I write to set the reader free

From “Hell-or-Heaven”. A question:

“Did He who made the Lamb make ME?”

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XV.

I came upon a diff’rent sort of satisfaction when

I’d put a greater span of distance and a little time

Between my urge and notions of indulging it again.

I saw it from a new perspective, warier than mine.

While I alone have felt and only I can understand

The feeling of the knife and the revolver in my hand,

Where lately I had made a home they’re bringing out the dead

And everywhere I wander I perceive the people’s dread.

With murders linked together, now the newsmen tell my tale,

Inspiring speculation with their bloody, grim detail.

Such dark imagination fills the holes in corpses’ heads

And roughly knits together what my blade had torn to shreds.

 

To hear my deeds recounted, I watch strangers turning pale

And sharing in a memory that lingers like a scar.

Assuredly, they wonder if their lives are just as frail,

And I exist to show the world that yes, they truly are.

While I am walking free among the innocent and weak,

The stories will invite the dark inside of them to speak.

I realize that I’ve achieved a special kind of fame

That carries brutal imagery but bears no human name.

Although I’d like the credit, it is better they believe

In guilty shadows that cannot be caught or grant reprieve.

But I will sign the work to come. I’ll show my red right hand

And thus be both anonymous and known throughout the land.

XIV.

Previously: I. XIII.

In worry that the triumph of my deeds

Would start to show some casual abatement,

I told myself, “What now my story needs

Is something of a new and bolder statement.”

And so, with four behind me, I eschewed

The impulse toward another random hunt,

Instead resolving that I should exude

An air that’s ever ready to confront

An insult or an underestimation

Of what I can accomplish here and why.

So I declared with new determination:

The armchair sleuth from TV had to die.

I knew they’d link him with my virgin killing,

That if I stayed thereafter, I’d be found.

But also, without question, I was willing

To find another happy hunting ground.

Beneath my grasp, the vigilante withered,

And even so, he seemed to recognize

The face of he who lately had delivered

His friend to Hell, where he’d rejoin her side.

I left his body less adroitly covered

Than all the others, so I must suppose

That he became the first to be discovered.

But I was gone before the trap could close.

XIII.

A scream is an expression of the soul,

Unique to every person’s fear and pain

Collected by my hand to pay the toll

For visiting my lower gods again.

And every bellow echoes in my ear,

With each a different note, and none estranged

Although I may be dead before I hear

Them all at once, and musically arranged.

I listen for the voices when I seek

A spirit fit to join in the arrays

Of those who will be beckoned not to speak

But rather scream beyond their dying days.

It wouldn’t do to make them all alike,

To turn my masters’ chorus monotone

Or rob me of the sentimental spike

That comes of claiming lives as yet unknown.

The first my lover, then, when months had passed,

A homeless fellow; then a college dame:

Each offered new emotional repast

And none of them remotely screamed the same.

To none have I deliberately returned—

No common feature, save delicious fear.

There’s benefit in this, as I’ve discerned.

My modus operandi isn’t clear.

XII.

I shake the hands of colleagues, straight and firm.

I tip my hat to ladies on the train.

I smile and chitchat lightly to affirm

That I am dull, familiar, and humane.

With daily practice, I have found that grinning

Is quite enough to let a man remain

Without suspicion of the vilest sinning

In view of those kept pious, dumb, and sane.

For me, there’s naught as cheerful as deception

With smiles flitting gently face to face

As I manipulate the mass perception

And find myself bid welcome everyplace.

There’s pleasure of a sort in self-suppression,

Which sees a person rarely ever brace

Against the sudden changing of expression

That signals something deadly, in my case.

Some few have seen another kind of smirk

That spreads across my lips, a deadly vine

As solemnly I undertake my work

Of bringing darker smiles to the divine.

To see the masks of joy depart! I prize

Their terror, which I cultivate like wine

Then taste of death apart from prying eyes.

And when I leave, the smile is genuine.

XI.

It seems a rather humorous cliché

Extracted from a cinematic world,

That I should stride past tombstones on a day

When scores of black umbrellas were unfurled.

The raindrops and the moisture marked the faces

Of mourners and those hiding in their midst

Who flowed among the crowds of empty spaces

And vanished later in the rising mists.

I watched with interest as a casket lowered

Into the blackness of a muddy pit

Where doubtless blooms of squirming bodies flowered

In hunger for their natural remit.

I thought, of course, about my tree, the creature

Beneath it unadorned and unconfined

So worms and insects could more quickly reach her,

More readily to see the flesh refined.

And thus conveyed beneath the rainy weather,

Through softening and sinking of the earth,

She’s drawing nearer to my masters’ tether

Where they can gauge my sacrifice’s worth.

I’m sure of gods’ receiving my oblation,

And yet there’s something missing; it must be

My peers’ begrudging, timorous ovation

For all I’ve yet to do and yet to be.

X.

Continuing from A Monstrous Rhythm I through IX.

Implausibly, I earned an invitation

To my own victim’s vast memorial –

A chance to sit in, sans participation

In saying “bye” to the corporeal

While clinging to the spirit of the dead.

I didn’t try to act less cold or distant,

Convinced it would be better if instead

Of showing grief in ways that seemed insistent

I let them think that we were still estranged.

I might have better dodged would-be suspicion

If I had stayed at home, but when arranged,

The gathering aligned with my ambition:

To be a specter striking as would lightning,

Who’s often seen but rarely ever known;

To wear a face that all regard as frightening,

But only when I will it to be shown.

I thought, therefore, that sitting with the mourners

I’d feel joy, but soon I came to find

That even with its many hidden corners,

Joy isn’t in the nature of this mind.

However, with the eulogies beginning

For she whom I had taken – I alone –

Despite myself, I found that I was grinning

As if their odes to joy were all my own.

With every tale of sweetness and elation,

My god’s imagination made them real,

And better than reliving their creation

Was knowing I had brought them all to heel.

And so amidst her friends and earnest lovers

I offered thanks for what I had been shown:

That feasting on the happiness of others,

I have no further need to seek my own.

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.

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.