Parents always identify the most exceptional aptitudes in their own children. Perhaps then I can be forgiven for what I have to say next. My little creature began to manifest remarkable talents and cleverness beyond those of other pets, and it would perform unbidden for my entertainment. I say it was remarkable. Rather trifles, I suppose, though to my eyes they were quite charming. It began with music. As I played a favorite musical recording in the evenings it would twitch its little tail or bounce a foot in rhythm – a proclivity unheard of in all the animal kingdom.
How I remember with fondness those months of our amiable companionship. It exchanged its previous unpleasant odor for a smooth, musky perfume, a smell which filled my study with a scent that would plunge my mind into endless unresolved problems relating to the human heart and its conflict with itself. You can further imagine my astonishment when it began to mimic my words, parroting phrases in that nasal metallic quacking voice it had, like the voice of an automaton. This was truly a unique thing and I rejoiced at the fortune that had brought the creature to my home.
In my heart of hearts, I increasingly suspected that my creation might be of some monetary value, that this project might not have been merely a hobby after all, even though at the time I was growing so fond of it that the thought of it reaching the age and maturity of leaving my nest weighed upon me as a sad prospect.
How things can change in a matter of just a few weeks.
It continued to fall subject to spells of agitation, like an epileptic, and no soothing words or food would help, nor would my caresses or any other medicines or any of the elements that had gone into its chemical composition, save one. If the remedy were not applied soon, it would become intolerable with its annoying cry and worried pacing, tapping its nails on the wood floor and finally soiling the carpet. When I could take it no longer, I removed the vial of salt tears and applied it with the brush as I had done since its infancy. But as you can imagine, it didn’t take long for the bottle to be emptied.
Something of a threshold was crossed the first day it fell into one of its fits after the bottle was empty. And when no other salve was found and the minutes had passed as I tried to restore it to calm, it instead became so wound up that it seemed it would burst. It climbed my pants legs, up to my chest and grabbed me by the lapels, and screamed its grating panic into my face. And I knew what I had to do, and I did it. The creature helped me of course with its manic perturbations setting my nerves on edge. I worked up a supply of my own tears and let them fall on it until it began to calm. Not satisfied with just a drop or two, it required a fair volume to do the trick and I was utterly exhausted afterward. But at least it was returned to its placid, amiable nature within just a few minutes.
Thus did our familial accord change in a single day, from the Creator-Creature model into a sinister reversal. When it fell subject to its fits of mania, it became a dominating nuisance that would not settle until it had driven me to tears of my own agitated rage, fiercely looking into my eyes waiting for the precious liquid to flow, sucking not just a few tears but the full heart of my upturned emotions, until we fell down gasping in the exchange. Each time it dragged me against my will along with it to the edge of the precipice, hung me over the edge and then released me only after the unnerving and embarrassing catharsis.
Fortunately, these episodes occurred not more frequently than once or twice a week.
Nor was that the only disruption the little brute caused.
Perhaps I let slip my remunerative intentions in my sleep. Or did it detect my thoughts in some curl of my mouth as I looked on paternally at its capering during the happy periods. I do not know. For all I know it could have spawned an endowment for telepathic congress with me, its maker, so precocious was the little beast. Whatever the cause, the creature ceased to be the playful toy and began to slink around the house with a new, melancholy aspect.
It seemed to be entering adolescence, and it was scarcely even a year old. The transformation occurred within only a week or two, and soon it rarely showed its face at all. I would only hear galloping thumps across the floor of a distant upstairs room. I would catch a glimpse of its tail disappearing underneath the sofa. I would hear its metallic quacking, murmuring its complaint to itself, and would be unable to determine from which direction it came. It ceased giving off any odor whatsoever, and I concluded it had reached the equivalent of its young adulthood. Any facet of its appearance that previously would have struck one as charming or playful began to dull and its expression came to resemble the cynical cock-eyed, wry-mouthed configuration of a spent and embittered octogenarian philanderer.
The tear applications ceased. No longer did it need them. It was full grown. When I would happen upon its hiding place as I searched for an old umbrella in a dark coat closet, or descending into the basement late at night with my lantern to check the furnace, or near the attic access, it would cast me a look of anguish, a look of the injured adult-child, and then would spring away into a dark recess.
Some nights as I tried to sleep in the cold, empty house, I would startle awake and find it peering into my face intently, as if to supplicate its maker for the answer to the greatest question. Why was it here? Why was it created? Was it merely to lie pent up in the old mansion, to spend its days in a the dark recesses? Surely there must be more, its eyes said. I read the question in its face, but I could give no answer, for I did not know the answer. Could I have communicated with it, I would have explained my similar inquiry, the first and greatest of questions, as all the race of mankind has inquired since the dawn of sentience. I had created it, but could I tell it why? Could I say that it was just a plaything, a hobby, a way to pass the cold winter nights? And what if the same answer had come back to me in response to my inquiry, in the language of mankind, rather than pregnant, scintillating silence?
That is the way things stand. Even now, throughout the telling of my tale, its claws tap and scrape along the attic floor two stories up, around and around. I will see it occasionally and it will bristle in my gaze, and look at me briefly in the corner of its eye before dashing away. I must find a new home for it before we both go mad.
I took the brush and dipped it in the vial, then I began to baste the object like a tiny Christmas ham, now merely a ball of confused elements with jagged pieces of sharp metal and bone poking out and tufts of fur in and through and around the messy mixture. As I applied the clear salty liquid, the smelly lump seemed to relax its agitation. The unpleasant smell dissipated. I would swear that if it was a living thing it could almost be said to give a sigh of contentment as I applied the fluid. I continued to spread it on until it had a complete coating all over.
I had forgotten the hour, but I suppose it was after midnight. The lightning and wind had ceased and only a snowy rain mix fell and formed a hard ice crust on everything outside. I suddenly realized my exhaustion and again felt my zeal for this project waning. What had I expected? Sticking the thermometer into its side, I noted the obvious, that some chemical reaction was at work, for the temperature was over one hundred and forty degrees. This had to be some kind of joke – the man in the shop had sold me a box of garbage and reagents that would produce a fizz, like a homemade soda volcano, but that was hardly what I’d had in mind when I went out in search of a new hobby.
I decided I would clean up the mess in the morning, and I put myself immediately to bed without even removing my waistcoat or shoes. The sleep-inducing effect of whiskey had me unconscious even as I mounted the stairs to my upper room, and I am certain that I must have sleep-walked the last twenty feet before collapsing.
But as my physiology would have it, once the soporific had spent its power, I awakened prematurely and was unable to return to sleep. The clock read 4:30 in the morning and I laid there frustrated for quite a while before rising in the still predawn darkness. I returned bleary-eyed to my little project thinking it would be suitable for nothing except the trash, and found it had evolved a little from the way I’d left it. It clearly had gained some organization and the tufts of fur had gathered into a proper array like a regular animal’s coat. Nor is that all. Once again it was jittering around in the metal bowl in agitation as I had seen it before, and it emitted an utterly foreign sound that I can only describe as resembling a baritone quack from a metallic duck.
The calming trick had worked before, so I tried it again. Taking the basting brush and the vial of salt tears, I brushed it with a good application, running along the grain of its fur. As predicted, the object became dormant.
Thus began my relationship with the creature I have lately started to call Malefic. But in those early days, I maintained a posture of cool ambiguity toward it. I decided to leave it a while and not throw it away. When it became jittery, I bathed it with the brush as before. I found its fur to be exceedingly soft and pleasurable to the touch and it occurred to me that a child might find it a nice toy when then chemical reactions ceased.
But to my astonishment, after ten days it had developed rudimentary limbs, and had started crawling on all-fours. In eight weeks it had eyes and a strangely formed snout. It’s fur had completely filled out, and it had perfected ambulatory function. And eventually, like a house cat it would rub up against my legs as I sat in my study, distracting me as I tried to work out some astro-chemical derivative or discrete geometry as I sometimes did to pass the time. Truthfully, in the months of its growth into full maturity, I came to value it as something of an awkward pet, a stray that had made itself at home. I cannot deny that my heart significantly warmed to it when an old friend from the academy came to visit me. Seeing the little beast, and hearing my explanation of its origin, he proceeded to hail my ascendancy among the titans of science. My pride was stroked and I thanked the creature afterward for the favor it had brought me.
When I arrived back at the manor where my great uncle had allowed me residence, reluctantly I might add, there was not an inch of dry fabric in all my apparel. The chill had numbed my fingers and I fancied that my hair was singed by the lightning that dogged me every step of the way, in stark juxtaposition to my near-frostbitten hands. Uncle was abroad and I had the vast dark residence to myself.
After changing into some dry things, I took my parcel to the steel preparation table in the kitchen. Any tool or measuring device I might need was certain to be at hand. Using scissors to cut away the cardboard outer layer, I found, to my delight, a handsome leather satchel with a brass buckle. I celebrated my good fortune thinking that whatever else I might find, I had already received a good value from the parcel. The smell of the leather was magnificent – not the heady, tart smell of new leather – that leather still shining with the polish and stain of the leatherworker – but leather that is supple and seasoned, that many hands have handled before, and very durable unlike so many cheap imitations made today.
I released the brass buckle and opened the bag with anticipation. Inside to my shock was a burlap sack. “Of all things,” I muttered. To find this rough, prickly layer inside the noble leather covering. Who would conceive of such a thing? I did not pause long to consider the question, but pressed ahead and opened the sack, emptying the contents onto the table. Some articles I recognized. A finger-sized block of graphite. A prism. A crumbling page from an old newspaper. A fifth of premium Kentucky whiskey. In one sealed container was a ball of fur – I could not tell what sort of animal it came from. There were included a half dozen small jars of chemicals with little labels – antimony, iron sulfide, saltpeter and so on.
There was a vial of clear fluid, which at first appeared to be water. Fancy if this is holy water, I thought. Removing the stopper and smelling a distantly familiar odor, I submitted to tasting it. It was clearly salty, but with a faint savor that assured me that it was not a regular chemist’s compound. I gathered its source to be tears. That, or the dew of perspiration, which made me shudder. Tears most likely, I decided. Yes, let it be tears. It was at this point that the sense that I had undertaken a project beyond my abilities, or rather, beyond what my stomach could bear, began to come upon me.
Several other items found in the bag were simply nostalgic articles or mysterious substances wrapped in old wax paper. I found a broken pocket watch for example. I found a charming old locket inlaid with mother of pearl, and a string necklace with several teeth, and a tiny key. Among the substances wrapped in wax paper appeared to be blocks of foundational material, like putty, in a variety of colors. I took a pinch of one color and worked it for a moment, and then mixed in another color, and finally a third and fourth. I pressed them together in my palms until the colors swirled together. Then I molded the swirling putty into the shape of a bowl and began to put various items in it: some crushed graphite, saltpeter, and a good dose of the whiskey, of which I also took a draft and found it to be airy in my sinuses like the effect of turpentine but as potent with its robust, amber gravitas as the company of Latin masters. A few other ingredients were set in the bowl, and I was ready to move to the next stage.
As I mentioned before, my experience with chemistry was of a very different sort. I toyed and fiddled and mixed, but I saw no effect. It seemed I was simply mixing odd materials together without direction. A notion suddenly overtook me that I had been duped. “There is no skill in this,” I thought. “This is a child’s play in a kitchen sink.” What would old Dr. Whitfield have thought if he could see this? I suspect he would have scowled at me from behind those goggles. However, even he could not have anticipated what was really brewing in my little kitchen laboratory.
Granted, there did seem to be a sort of logic to the way the items went together, though it may not be apparent at first. But to me it seemed that my hands were being guided by a outside understanding that came upon me in the presence of the moment. To this day I do not know if it was the muse, or simply my overconfidence pressing me forward.
The little bowl of ingredients sat before me on the table, and I began to look around the kitchen for some instrumentation. Rummaging through drawers and cabinets, I found a hammer for tenderizing meat, a basting brush, a thermometer, and a couple of ripe clementines. I also brought a metal bowl back to the table thinking that I would have to knead the elements together at some point, and I wanted to avoid a mess. But when I had returned to the table, my little putty bowl was trying to close up into a ball by some unseen animating principle. I watched it, and like a flower closing up at night, its little sides were pulling together. This concerned me a little because I had not yet put all the ingredients in and I feared an aborted effort.
Quickly and with great care, I set the object in the metal bowl. Not knowing why, I took the locket and the pocket watch and smashed them with the hammer. Then I put the pieces in the bowl, followed by the animal fur, the key, and, after another swallow for myself, the rest of the whiskey. I squeezed a clementine, letting its citrus juice drizzle into the mix, and I began to knead the mess with my bare hands as I hastily recited a pater noster. The mixture began to seethe and contort in the bowl and I my stomach lurched. It gave off a smell like nothing I’ve ever known. And then finally I knew in my soul the last step that was required. I had to anoint it from the vial of tears.
Chemicals and their esoteric connection to the sustaining of life had always held a particular fascination for me. From the earliest days I would put salt on a slug, and as it melted, quickly apply a solution of camphor and ipecac and watch as it regenerated before my young boy’s eyes. Metals were easy to work with. I never did succeed in turning a base metal into gold, but with the help of a strong electrical pulse and copious applications of saliva, I did succeed in transforming dysprosium into molybdenum. Sadly I only produced the effect once. I attribute this to the fact that I had a throat infection at the time and the bacteria in my spittle was surely the key to the transformation.
When I decided to try my new endeavor, the winter was especially tumultuous and I could scarcely get out of the house. When necessity required it, I would don my grandfather’s black rubber coat and hat. And reluctantly, amid in the fierce night storms and black snow flurries and tornadoes, I would venture out for what I needed, bracing myself against the sleet, scampering from porch to tree to shed as the lightning pursued me with malice, snapping at my heels. It was just such a night when I felt I must procure some new diversion or go mad. Under black skies and violent weather, I set out for a curiosity shop of some acquaintance.
The man at the counter did not speak proper English, and the parcel he gave me was labeled in a language that resembled his throaty, tongue-heavy speech made up of various gargling sounds and Nordic vowels and an occasional cumbersome English adjective. “Alchemic,” he kept saying. He pointed at me and to the package, and then to heaven, saying “alchemic!” repeating it with gesticulations, saying it now slow, now fast, and finally beating the countertop with his fist as if this would stir my comprehension. In response to my request for a hobby kit involving chemical elements with biological applications, he had disappeared for several minutes in the rear of the shop and, returning, produced the parcel previously described. “Alchemic,” he croaked. Finally I discerned that he was speaking of alchemy.
“Ah! Alchemy. Yes, I know something of the subject,” I replied, and I tried to describe to him my success with molybdenum. I surrendered after a moment when I realized that I was wasting my time with him, for he merely looked at me with an increasing intensity and a guttural diphthong utterance at random points that momentarily interrupted my tale. As I attempted to carry on casual shop clerk banter, he was becoming more and more animated, if that can be imagined. And the more I tried to thank him and ask about the parcel, the more be began to pound the countertop and to point his finger in my face and finally to shout what I can only assume to be rank profanity in his glyphic and forgotten tongue.
And when he seemed to have expressed the burden of his dialectic in the fury of passion into which he had lathered himself, he fell silent and pointed to the door with a resolute finger and his head bowed. “But I have not paid you yet,” I protested, in response to which he returned to his apoplexy. And in blushing astonishment before his leaping and stamping and swooping gestures toward the door and his voice that signaled that a seizure was nigh, I grabbed up the parcel under my arm and I fled out the door to the frightful ululation of his pagan doggerel that summoned twelve legions of demons, or so it seemed to me.
This is the first episode of my new serialized Gothic short story, Malefic. New episode will appear every day or two. Enjoy!
by Jeffrey Mays
I am not sure where Malefic is at this moment. It has never attacked me before, directly. Perhaps I am safe. Probably I am.
Initially, I did not know what to call it. The packaging was labeled in a foreign tongue when I picked it up at the store. Some obscure English words were mixed in, but I couldn’t understand them either. And so without the benefit of an accepted product name or description, and because of the torment it has caused me, I’ve started calling it Malefic.
If I had only spent an hour and gone to the rescue center for an old mastiff or a scottish deerhound, the whole situation could have been avoided. Although, you see, I was not in the market for a pet. I wanted something. What did I want? I’m not sure. Just something to pass some time perhaps. A hobby, nothing more.
I could have taken up watercolors again and might have even been able to sell them at the county market. I might have set up a booth next to the blind bead maker with his three-legged dog. There are other artist booths there and each one purveying their array of works of lesser quality than what I could produce. I am something of an artist if it is permitted me to say so. My pastel rendering of a Pierrot by a river, for example, was well-received.
But this time I may have aimed my sights too high. I have an eye for good art, but I am no Michelangelo. Watercolors are one thing. But like Icarus I feel I am tumbling from the sky having flown too close to the sun. Humility requires me to rephrase that – I may be more like a man who dug a hole too deep, flinging the soil up out of the hole, and now cannot get out.
Ambition got the best of me, I suppose. I am capricious like that, you know: drifting like a gadfly from one interest to the next. The same character fault has also kept me single all these years. Not satisfied with entomology or the djembe or playing farkle, I had to dabble in matters beyond my ken, so confident was I.
But it was not without some basis. My career experience in somewhat related fields, I reasoned, would make for an easy bridge to new endeavor. Indeed, I had served in the produce of modern manufacturing, of goods devised by virtual wizards with knowledge of elements and biomatter, their growth and decay, the conjuring of new creations from murky steaming vats in warehouses. I had been employed at various times in these industries that produced useful new products to populate the shelves of retail stores
As a young man I had assisted old Dr. Whitfield many a’night as he stood hunched over the table tightly wrapped in his heavy white cotton lab coat, those straps and buckles. And the goggles perpetually over his eyes, so dark with tint as to block them completely, like those bohemian rogues who wear their black sunglasses even indoors. I was there the very night when he turned a paste of composted mandrake and ethanol and a dozen other enzymes into a new plastic with unguessed properties.
And even within the past decade my professional labors had produced clever and miniaturized machines that did a small set of people tremendous benefits to mind and body. My customers would often venture out through the marshes to my laboratory at the ambergris distillery. Their gratitude was graciously received by me, and they inquired further about the little devices and the whirring mechanisms that seemed miraculously to produce their effect, for they had examined them and could not unlock the secret to their function. And there in the moment, I silently realized that I was not altogether sure how they worked either, but I suspected a commonly known phenomenon by which an object becomes greater than the sum of its parts. I described this notion so ubiquitous in the halls of science, and it served only to increase their wonder and respect for me. They went away bowing and smiling as if to pay me a kind of reverence.
But I digress. And even now I hear Malefic upstairs. It senses that I am thinking about it and it is pacing around the spare room again. Nevertheless I will continue with my tale.
Currently reading: Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse
OK. So we don’t judge a book by it’s cover.
I listened to this on an audiobook 4 times last year when I had a job that required me to drive down to the Rio Grande valley a lot.
This book is SO delicious. What was the last book you read in which the plot alone was spectacular, but the prose! Ah, the prose, translated from German even, is just magical. It reminds me of Lolita in that same way – a heart-rending story and very controversial, but the beauty, the lyricism and poetry of the way the narrator speaks is rapturous.
Herman Hesse has the ability to string together miracles of lingual ecstasy. It doesn’t hurt that the first couple of times I went through the story, I identified closely with the main character Harry Holler in his world-weariness. Until I saw that Hesse was not praising this kind of existence but rather condemning it for its pride and uselessness.
I would love for folks to start leaving some comments. So go ahead. Leave a comment telling of a book that you loved especially for its beautiful language. I am always looking for the next book to read.
And you might just want to put Steppenwolf on your reading list.
Imagine you want to create a work of art in fiction writing. Your topic? The nebulous and weighty matter of Identity. Let’s say you draw from all of your life experience, your belief systems, your worldview. You bring it all to bear. And when it’s all said and done, the end result is basically, “I’m not really sure what to make of Identity, but I can riff for 200 pages, and keep you entertained on the fact that I don’t know what to make of it. But nobody really does, do they?”
I finished the book I was reading, Sorry Please Thank You, by Charles Yu, and this is what I came away with: the sense of being engaged for a short while by a street performer. First, he gets your attention with his best act, the real mind-blower of bravery and cleverness. You stop and watch, and then enthusiastically applaud, turning to your spouse and whispering, “Wasn’t that great? This guy is really good.”
Then the performer pulls out his next act – a very clever magic show. He does some tricks that you haven’t exactly seen, but they are not unfamiliar. Still, he deserves another strong applause. You’ve got time, so you wait while he does a few more tricks, throwing in variety at points, juggling balls, swallowing fire. He quickly changes his costume and repeats the same trick. Then seeing your enthusiasm start to wane he bursts into a tap-dance routine, struggling to be graceful, original and frenetic all at the same time. But you’ve seen plenty of tap-dancing, and this one is not especially interesting. In fact, you start to feel that it is just a tad pathetic. He is trying so hard, you think to yourself, and for what? You take a quick look at your watch hoping he doesn’t see you, because you don’t want to be rude. You smile at your spouse with that smile that says, “I’ve seen enough. How do we get out of here?” The acts seem to be getting cheaper, requiring less skill, like little tricks with his nose that he learned in junior high, but he wont release you. Until finally, he brings out his big finale. It is somewhat of an uptick because he saved a special routine that involved playing three instruments at once and high-kicking while sparklers burn from various places. He gives a deep bow to your polite applause, and you add another dollar to the five you already stuck in his jar. You and your partner are finally free to move on.
As you walk, you guess that the guy had been toying around with a banjo for many years, and he probably took some tap lessons at some point, and read a book of magic tricks. You figure, based on the execution, that he had probably only been performing on street corners for a few months. And admittedly, you were moderately entertained.
I am not trying to be uncharitable. But in the role of the writer critiquing another writer, I am being honest. And I know someday the spotlight will be turned on to my work, and some blogger will be tearing it to shreds with greater vitriol and bile than I have done here. My wish is not to impugn Mr. Yu. He possesses more skill than most writers, and unfortunately I mean that. My desire is to reawaken readers to what once was (and perhaps still is somewhere, but just not in this book). My other desire is to inspire writers to reach ever higher. To delve as deep as possible into the well of your soul. There are short stories and novels that have the power to change you forever. Can you write one?
This is Yu’s second book – the first was a acclaimed novel. This second book is a collection of short stories. I have read that it is sort of an axiom among publishers that books of short stories simply do not sell. I don’t know if that’s true, because I know of several books of short stories that have done moderately well. And Mr. Yu’s collection has done quite well, bucking the trend. I am happy for him, and he is getting a fair bit of publicity. He was even interviewed on NPR. His popularity seems to be rooted in his ability to create new twists that brush up against some old science fiction themes.
But in view of what Faulkner said about all good literature arising from problems associated with the heart in conflict with itself, I’d have to say that only a fraction of the stories qualify as good writing. Too many are mere solipsisms – reflections on the self by alter-selves in which nothing happens except the contemplation of selfness. (In case you’re wondering, Faulkner did not mean solipsism when he said “the heart in conflict with itself.”)
It took me only 3 days to read, but not because I am a fast reader. I am not. But there is so much white space on the pages that frequently there is just very little text. One story is formatted so that there is only one sentence or paragraph in the center of the page, and you cover 40 pages in about 8 minutes. Another “story” is completely written in outline form. Another is three alter selves talking to each other about the one person they all are, but never saying anything – just getting confused. This is all just a street performer tap-dancing with all his heart – sound and fury signifying nothing.
I say, we should insist on quality. Not that lesser writers should stop writing. They should not. But what we pay money for should nourish something inside. Stop giving your time and attention to every street performer, every acrobat, every clown, every hipster with vampire makeup on. Don’t be satisfied to look at shiny tinsel mosaic. Don’t be satisfied with horror shows dripping with fake blood. Insist on real blood! Don’t even be satisfied with easy love, because easy love is usually false love – it is just as easily lost.
The best literature tells you something about yourself and about the people you share the world with. It brings you close to The Mysterious, the unspeakable things of life. It also delights you with originality and a vision beyond what you possess. It does not rely on gimmicks or hat tricks, and it doesn’t simply imitate a successful formula.
You can only read so many books in your life. I say, don’t waste time on stuff that doesn’t matter.