Monday, September 19, 2011

Excerpt from Prince of Devils

I think it  was then, sitting at that table, that I realised for the first time how  much I really hated him.  It was not so much that he had spoiled Sophie's story, but that he had spoiled something which was important to me,had yet again soured the sweet  milk of a special moment.  And perhaps it was the flirting too, sitting across from Gabriella, playing games with her, with his words, his eyes ... thinking  I would not even notice, or perhaps not caring if I did.
I didn't blame Gabriella, she was one of those women who respond automatically to any overtures which men make.  She couldn't help herself, it was a part of her nature to be the instrument upon which men played.  She didn't know anything else to be and  perhaps would not even  have called it flirting; to  Gabriella it was just a state of being, something one was in the company of a man.  I blamed Michael for it though.  He knew better and had recognised her for what she was and decided to have some fun.  I had seen him do it before, many times.  Whether he was serious or not about taking it any further I don't know.  I suspect if circumstances had been such that sex were available,  then he would have taken up the offer but with Michael the means were always more important than the end ... it was the game he loved, like a well-fed cat which torments a mouse before killing it, not because it is hungry, but simply because it is a cat and it has captured a mouse. Michael was like that with women.
Michael had a  decidedly sluttish nature and it surprises me even now  that I could have overlooked it for so long.  But we play with the pieces of truth which life puts in front of us, push them out of sight when we can, bury them if we have a chance and sometimes just refuse to see them, no matter how stubbornly they glare at us.  It wasn't even a question of loving him or not loving him, love is  something which comes and  goes, but  on that night I knew for certain  that I did  not like him,  not one single part of him and probably never had.
Something had told me even as I listened to the words of the priest that it was wrong but  few have the strength to walk out on their own wedding and so I told myself it would change.  But it hadn't, such things don't of course and that night seeing  him sitting there, somewhere different, seeing him out of our normal world, without the props of everyday life to confuse the picture, I could see him so very much more clearly. It was then that I recognised him for what he was... a strange beast who had captured and  held me prisoner for far too long.  In that light, within the embrace of the shadows,  he looked like some shaggy-headed creature with diabolical eyes and sharp-pointed teeth.  As he raised the glass to his lips  the red wine  washed in a blood-bright gleam across  his  lips. 
I watched him as if in a trance, as he sat there talking to Gabriella, pouring out his opinions in guttural rhythm, saw the real creature appear  from  the suddenly  unbuttoned  coat  which  I  called  Michael  and was transfixed as  he changed shape before me.  He smiled, but  not at me,  it was a smile for Gabriella and I thought I heard  the faintest  hiss whispering amongst the hairs on the nape of my neck.
That night  too the hatred made  its way out,  stood in  the insubstantial light  of the flickering candles and stared me in the eye.  That night I saw it distinctly for the first time,  could trace its outline, define its shape  and  when it returned to the safety of  its hiding place, remember what I had seen.  Why it should have happened that night I  am not so sure  but the fact that  it did means the night remained also wickedly clear in my memory.
 So long ago and yet I see him now, remember that air he had which was both repulsive and attractive, with narrowed eyes of light-washed  green, refined in shape and almost delicate above the sudden bursting of his large, aquiline nose.  I had thought him handsomeand no doubt he was,  but time  cast a hideous air to the strong, wide-jawed and fleshy  face.  He had wronged me too many times to remain beautiful.  I had married my prince and discovered him to be the beast.
I did not hear Sophie’s story until Michael had gone upstairs.  She served the coffee, drank hers in silence, watching him out of the corner of one eye  until finally he stretched, rubbed his hands on either side of his face as if something were itching and stood up.  He was tired, or so he said, had drunk too much in fact and completely forgotten about the story.  He was the only one who had.
We sat in silence as Michael clumped heavily up the stairs and it was only with the sound of the bedroom door shutting that Sophie leaned her elbows on the table and peered across, first at me and then at Gabriella.  When she spoke it was more like a gravelled muttering moving across the table,  the words confused by the heaviness of her accent  and so I too leaned across, both of us face to face in the centre with Gabriella moving her chair closer until we formed a half circle.  Two of the candles on one side gasped and sucked for  the last time and the shadows crept  closer,  bundling us up in  a blanket  of  darkness, candle smoke and whispered words.
There was a  man, said Sophie, who came to  the house on the night  of the  crescent moon.  Tonight  was such  a night and so the story must  be  told because  there was  another woman in the  house and such a man cannot  be met unprepared. He wanted nothing more than to hold the hand of woman and to dance  within the dream that she had made and it was important that the woman,  whosoever should be chosen, knew the truth of her own dream. Those who did not faced danger for nothing came in pure innocence.  Whatever is sought must be paid for and sometimes the pain of seeking is the only true price.
This man will be as much of a ghost as you wish him to  be, said Sophie, but if he should come to you and you wish him to be real then that will also be done.  What you ask of him, then he will give, but only if you can offer him the truth of your own dream.  If you have nothing to offer, then he will leave, but he will not leave empty-handed, he will take something of his own choosing and there is nothing you can do to stop him.  But if you give him what he desires, then he will leave you a gift, it may be small, but it will be precious and you may not know it for what it truly is, but you must treasure it all the same.
When Sophie finished speaking she smiled at me and took my hand. Her skin felt warm and dry to the touch and there was something sure and safe in the way she traced the lines on my palm and nodded her head up and down. “You will live long,” she told me, “and you may regret much, but it does not have to be that way. The gifts are many and they are yours for the seeking.” When she patted my hand and put it down gently on the table I felt as if something rare and precious had been placed in front of me and had to look carefully to remind myself that it was no more than a hand, my own hand.  Gabriella gave a small, joyful laugh  and reached out a hand to each of us and we sat for a time, holding hands across the table, the candles fluttering in a wilful dance and Sophie smiling warmly behind small, mouse-white teeth.
When I walked up the stairs to bed it was on light, moon-woven feet, as if I had become spirit and would soon take flight. It was the sound of Michael’s snoring as I opened the door which brought me down to earth and it was then I began to think about  Sophie's story. In the cold, darkness of the room, sitting beside Michael’s humped and boulderous shape,  it seemed to be too silly to take seriously and yet Sophie was deadly serious in the telling and Gabriella had nodded in sober agreement as she talked.  It made me shiver, both with fear and expectation, for a part of me wanted to see this strange apparition,  for that was all it  could  be,  some  lost, tormented ghost,  and yet  another part of  me wanted  to see nothing, to remain in ignorance, without offering or gift.
When I climbed into bed, rubbing at the blue chill of my hands, I was glad for once to huddle into Michael’s back if only because he was warm and he was flesh and whatever  I thought or felt about him,  he was known and familiar and therefore safe.  Safer at least than the company of  strangers  and  phantasmal beings.  It was because  I believed  in  such things  that  I  buried myself under  the blankets and  crept as close  to Michael  as I could  bear to be.  I knew all about ghosts, had my own to contend with, and had no  desire to meet any strange new ones.  And from what Sophie had said this particular ghost gave nothing without taking something away and I had nothing I was prepared to give.
 I fell asleep straight away and would probably have forgotten the story if I hadn't had the dream and found the devil's button, that pure shivering droplet made of mother of pearl and carved all over with tiny flowers.  I found it on the floor by the side of my bed when I got up in the morning and recognised it straight away.  I'd seen him wearing it in the dream, or what I thought was the dream.
Sometimes it comes to me so vividly that  dream, as if I'm living it and at other times  it's all faded and blurred and  I can't quite make out  the shape of it. It's like that now but it will come back to me, it always does and then it's so real, my grandmother's voice, because she was there too, she was in the dream,  and him, looking so  tall and beautiful in that suit of shining pale blue satin buttoned all down the front  with those small, glistening tears.   It  was finding the button  which made me believe it was  more than a dream.  Such a small button,  but sitting so brightly on the faded weave of the old woollen mat which took barely a breath of the chill out of the cold slate floor.
I had picked it up immediately, not expecting it to be real, thinking it would just disappear in front of my eyes, but  it didn't and I rolled it around in the palm of my hand watching as it caught the light from the morning sun.  Michael saw me doing it and asked what it was and so I told him I had found a pretty button and would keep it for my collection.  He had laughed and said only I would be crazy enough to collect buttons on holiday and anyway, we had more than enough rubbish to get home as it was and I had more than enough buttons waiting for me when I got there.
When I told him this one was different and anyway it wouldn’t take up much room he had just grunted and said if it made me happy then why not. I was surprised to find him being so nice and for a moment thought the button might be my lucky charm but knew in my heart it had more to do with the guilt he felt for flirting the night before than any amount of luck or charm. More than anything the button was something real from a night that was already fading into dreams and  I had thought it would be nice to have something to remind me of that farmhouse and Sophie’s strange story. As it turned out I didn’t need it, because while I took something with me I also left something behind. Things were never the same between Michael and I after that. I don’t think either of us knew it as we drove away, because we were both laughing at nothing and everything, joking with each other and watching the dogs which ran on either side of the car all the way down to the gates, an escort of wagging tails and rioutous barking which saw us off the farm and back into the real world. I was surprised then at just how happy I felt and it surprises me a little even now, looking back, that such joy can be found in death. But whatever had been between us, and it wasn’t much, died that night and was left behind on the floor of a cold, damp room in Cornwall; a thin and milk-skinned corpse with stare-startled eyes.


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