By N.D. Coley
Well of course I am writing this down! You have always loved a good message and I am happy to make one. I do not pretend that you have some access to my innermost thoughts, do you? You only know me by the things I say in polite conversation, or how I dress. Perhaps how I smile. I might give weak clues about myself by how quickly I eat a meal or throw down the bourbon. You see my shadows of suffering in all the little things, but you will not know the nature of my suffering until I write it down and give it to you.
A man can become a tapestry of nonsense. He can dress above or below his station, or he can fake a smile to the right person or pat his belly after a revolting meal, but the hardest place for a man to hide his feelings and opinions is in his letters. A lie masked by a face is smooth and penetrating—it burrows into the brain before the recipient can see the deceit and say no, but a lie on the page? Oh a lie on the page is clunky! Words that do not fit betray the author. They are as rounded pegs into a square keyhole. It is almost impossible to be a sophist with a pen. It is possible but rare.
By reading my letters you will know that I am a writer by trade and by spirit, with nothing to hide. You have read my writing in The Review. You know what I can do.
I will show myself to be impatient and angry—quick to judge and slow to think. But what you see in these letters is transparent beyond reproach. It is nonsense that a look into a man’s eyes is a window into the truth. If you want to see a man’s eyes you must see his pen. The pen cannot deflect like the eyes can. An eye is a fogged-up window into the soul, but a page knocks down the wall and exposes the soul to the sun.
There will be more letters soon, but not now. Patience my friend. If you read with impatience you may as well not read at all, lest the words hit your head like hailstones and dent the skull with no effect. For now I must retire to my bed. There is a swelling on my thigh that I have, as of late, not attended to. It is red and warm, a warning of some parasite underneath my skin, something that wishes to tunnel into fat and flesh and bone. It is time to apply the medicine and let the mixture sting. Wounds that rest do not heal. I must wet them and dig.
You shall hear from me. My letters are my oxygen. If they cease to arrive, you should send a coroner with a garbage sack to my home. A writer without a purpose is a dead man walking.
Greetings! I call on you again and would have called on you sooner, but the medicine applied to the lump in my thigh has not had the desired effect. Since last I wrote the swelling has grown a little, day by day, changing the colors of the infected rainbow—blood reds and deep purples and shades so green that any physician would reach for the blades meant for amputation. The bump became a lump and the lump become a mound and the mound became a mountain. It is now warm, glowing, and nearly hot. This is what it is like when an affliction has almost exhausted its powers. The wound will resolve soon.
As I wait for healing, I cannot help but feel that this leg of mine is responsible. Do you remember the dealings that I had with my neighbor, the respected banker we called Mr. Hughes? He was not destitute and he needed nothing, but knocked on my door and inquired about something greater. He knew of my dealings with Lord Montour and how those enterprises had made me a rich and gluttonous playboy. Hughes knew better than to inquire on the legality of it all. He only wanted a stake.
He sold Lord Montour a substance, a cream, an agent that could almost instantly reverse that shriveling of the skin that we so often associate with aging and death—it was not something that could buy eternal life, Hughes said, but the illusion of it. The illusion of it was all that was necessary for satisfactory commerce. He did a demonstration and Lord Montour smiled and there was an exchange of money and handshakes. There was much merriment and drinking.
Lord Montour looked into his crystal ball and saw more gold, so he sold the cream as fast as Hughes could acquire it, and Lord Montour’s wife, a lovely thing, a fair skinned lady with long yellow hair, insisted that she should try it as well. She was not old but not young and death was always on her mind.
The lady applied the substance, and at first she was as Lord Montour had remembered her in her youth, of such a beauty that no magic mirror known would have called another woman so fine, but Lady Montour applied it again and again, and it became clear that the effect was the opposite. Her skin went from tan to grey and grey to brown, and brown to black. Boils appeared on her skin—hard, red, bloody bumps that made her sob in pain. The smoothness became wrinkles, and her hair dried up and fell to the ground like the remnants of a bird’s nest. I was there when, as she howled in pain and flung splatters of infection on her doctors, she used the last her strength to curl her fingers below her own jaw and break her own neck.
Hours later, Lord Montour and Hughes and I sat around a table, surrounded by a cloud of cigar smoke. A single lantern flickered from the rafters. Lord Montour, stern faced but with a twinkle in his eye, assured Hughes that all would be fine. He poured a toast and clinked glasses and told Hughes to drink and be well. He said that life was, if nothing else, a long series of unhappy accidents.
Hughes sipped and smiled and began to wretch. White foam spurt, in thick globs, from the center of his lips. It ran out his nose and down his pointy chin. It was, without question, the poison that I had seen the good Lord Montour deliver to many of his enemies. The antidote was in my pocket, instructed to be used in the event that there had been a mistake that poisoned the Lord instead.
Lord Montour left the room, smiling. Hughes stumbled from his chair and wrapped his shaking frame around my legs. He felt the bottle in my pocket, pressed against my thigh, and he looked into my eyes and knew that they hid some kind of secret (I tell you, I tell you, and tell you again—an eye is only good for a lie). He pushed into me and tried to pry open my pockets, but before he could do so I reached for a stein and smashed against the bottle, against my leg. I had an oath to Montour, written and stored away, as all oaths must be if they are true. The cure seeped into my flesh and made a tickling sensation. I watched with indifference as Hughes sunk to the floor. His head slumped. A pool of foam collected on the ground and steamed and smelled of stew that had sat over a kettle for too long.
Could that antidote, seeping into my flesh, be that which made that hideous lump? I think so, and my writing it down is proof of my story. The wrong a man has done can dig deep and hide and wait for the right moment. I tell you that the antidote became a poison and the poison got my leg.
I must go. I cannot dig at this wound and write at the same time. I am a writer and not a magician, and a writer can only do one thing at a time if he is to do it well. Besides—the poker in the fire is hot and the wound is ready to be sealed.
Ha ha! Here I am again, seated around my writing desk (the only friend of mine that is incapable of betrayal) and ready to tell you more. It has been more taxing of late—saying what I want to say with the words I want to use. I sit, hunched over scattered pages, seated in the glow of my fireplace. The bookshelves around me glimmer and cast light on volumes too rich for my stupid brain, and if I lean to the side the light from the fire flickers over the mounted head of a bear that I took in a hunt some years ago. Its face is cold and its eyes, long replaced by marbles, sit over a snout and teeth that are white and sneering.
The words would come easier if the affliction in my thigh had not hardened and turned the flesh to something like stone. If you were here I would let you dance your fingers over it—a hunk of leg hardened by infection and my poor attempts at medicine. I fear I may lose the limb soon, but I do not need this leg to write now do I?
And I have more to concern me, it seems. As my right leg has hardened, my left foot has made some fuss of its own. The bones in my foot grew and pushed my toes through my boot, bursting through the seams. This became so painful that several nights ago I removed the boot altogether. In the hours that followed this foot expanded further—the bones poked through the flesh and carved holes through my skin—they grew longer and longer, the appendages wrapping around the floor like a group of white, segmented serpents. I cannot walk on it, but I do not need to talk to use my pen.
What mystery brought me to this? I am not a man trained in medicine, but this defies the reasoning of the best physicians. I assure you that it does.
The genesis of this novel ailment is this: Some time ago I had an unpleasant meeting with the editorial staff at The Review. I will not repeat their accusations against my writing ability—their cries were stupid and brutish and ignorant of my own sincerity. I gave these prehistoric creatures a gesture much too vulgar to recount and, after taking a sudden swig of their best Brandy, stormed from their offices.
On the way back to my home I sampled the very best spirits in the market—so much so that by the time I reached the end of the street I had to drink on the promise of my good credit. I found myself pleasantly enlightened, or intoxicated as some might argue, my feet dangling over the riverbank. I sat there, eating a leg of lamb, watching dark clouds gather over the waters. As I proceeded to take my last and final bite, a dog suddenly darted from my left and snatched my last morsels.
I was furious. I approached this hound, this mutt, this abomination, and stared at its sickly form. It chomped and chomped, and my belly grew hungry and growled, and that growl climbed up my gullet and out my mouth. I screamed and swore, muttering the worst insults and blasphemies, and my foot suddenly found itself in a striking motion. The toes thumped against the ribs of the canine. The ribs cracked like twigs, and the animal suddenly collapsed. With the very same foot I nudged the four-legged scoundrel towards the river, with full intention to shove the monster into the drink.
And that is when the boy was upon me, a lad of no older than six. He spit on me and beat on my chest with tiny fists. He muttered that I had killed his friend, killed his friend, killed his friend. But I knew better. The mutt was still breathing and would not die. The boy backed off and threw his arms around his companion and wept.
As I listened to the shrieks of the boy and the labored breath of the canine, I heard the sound of hooves, that which horses make when they are afraid and only know to run. I looked to my left and there was a carriage—black as one can imagine—a vessel that I would not consider the property of any living person. It was fronted by two stallions. Their coats were brown and shiny, and their eyes glowed red and their snouts turned up in fury. The animals had been startled and were without control. They were headed straight for the boy.
They would have trampled the child had not a man, a bystander, a stranger—someone who had no investment in this situation, pushed the boy and the dog into a nearby gutter. The boy and the dog were safe, but the man had no time to remedy his position. He lay flat on the cobblestone road as a pair of hooves came, like the gavel of the divine, upon his head. The skull cracked like a walnut between two pieces of wood. I watched in horror and wonder as the man’s eyes, large white bulbs, shot out from his face and dangled from strings of bloodied nerves. His scalp slid from his skull like a loose piece of sod. The man trembled and jerked and stopped moving. Several feet over, the boy held his dog and shuffled away into the dark. The carriage sped away, uncontrolled, and veered in a different direction and was gone.
It was my foot that did this, yes? Should I be shocked that it now resembles something more like large spiders made of bones? I have no choice but this. There is a hammer by my wall, a massive chunk of iron fixed to a handle. My foot cannot be saved. It is the foot that must go, and so I must cease my letter and crush the appendage. I must pound it into dust and scoop up that dust and cast it into the flames. I can manage without it, my friend.
Until next time. Your faithful readership is not lost on me.
It has been too long, has it not? And yet your polite replies tell me that you are not offended by my tardy correspondence.
But this tardiness is not without good reason. Oh the pain that I have suffered on account of my ailments! Oh the pain! My infected thigh could not be salvaged, and there was no physician who offered up any plan other than severance. After having consulted several men of medicine and been satisfied with their diagnosis, I agreed to fill myself with whiskey and be subjected to their saws. By the time they sliced off my right leg it was as if they had cut through a dried hornet’s nest. It came off with no incident—the flesh and muscle and bone flaked off like confetti. These men of medicine, cold and precise, trimmed the stump up to my right pelvis and sealed the point, on my other leg, where my left foot had once lived. They bid me goodnight and promised to send a bill.
And now I am afraid. Terribly afraid. Not from these events or amputations, no. I am scared on account of a new calamity—my hands are nearly dead. They resemble clumps of butchered chicken, interspersed with bone. Only two working digits remain, though they are enough. My hand might be slow, but my mind is quick and I am still able to write.
Here is where I begin this awful episode. You know the I was in love once, yes? You may not think me capable of such things, but I did love once. I may seem like a monster to you, but there is a monster behind every act of love. Everyone who has ever been in love, who has ever been possessed, knows this.
There was girl I knew once in my youth. We met entirely by accident. Mutual friends of ours had decided upon a trip to the theatre; a showing of death most beautiful, where Prince Hamlet fought against all manner of unreason and, in perfect sincerity, found himself dead, along with his father and mother and uncle and so many companions.
As the theatergoers finished crying and wiping their eyes, I joined my friends and found myself in perfect step with this young woman. Her hair was brown and it lay in waves. Her eyes were pure, as pure as anything as I have ever seen or will ever see. I looked at her, and she looked at me, and there was something lovely, a stoppage in time. She gazed through me and I gazed through her, and we understood each other. What followed in those few treasured moments were series of kisses that could not occur between two other people. The universe created such a moment as this and the moment was mine.
And that night ended with no words; nothing beyond the pressing of our lips against each other’s. She went her way and I went mine, and the next time I heard of her, only some weeks later, she had taken on someone else—without cause, without ceremony, without explanation. They passed by me once, as I was about my business in the market. She looked satisfied. I looked on, sad and confounded. Her eyes glanced my way, for a moment, as if I were a commoner and a stranger.
Now, do you know this? Shortly after I found myself without a leg on one side and without a foot on the other, I heard some gossip in town—a woman of her very name was rumored to be married to a lover from some years ago—she had left a passion unfulfilled, and it was now time for her to complete this space in her heart.
Imagine my amazement and elation! I knew, indeed, that the gossip must have referred to me, for what other passion could be worth visiting? She surely knew that the moment we shared was so sacred that it could not be left in the dustbin of her memories. This was, I reasoned, a surprise; a marvelous way of telling me that it was time to come and claim that which was mine.
I hobbled on a pair of crutches to the tailor and purchased the very best wedding garments I could find—I handed over all of my gold and extended the rest of the invoice onto credit, and what a handsome thing I was, deformed as I was. The suit accentuated my arms and shoulders. I looked much taller and sturdier than I was. A silk bow tie sat at the base of my neck, and the shoes I wore had as much shine as you would ever see on the feet of a man in this dingy town.
With the very best the florist had to offer in one hand, and the most exquisite diamond from the jeweler in the other, I hid myself on the side of the road on the day of the procession and waited. You cannot imagine how my spirit rose when, peaking my head up for a moment, I saw the brown locks of her hair, covered in a translucent veil ,disappearing into the doorway of the cathedral. It was time.
I sat against the door, my ear pinned to the keyhole, and waited for the priest to commence with his banal and antiquated liturgies, and when I determined it would be time for me to make my expected entrance, I shoved open the doors to the sanctuary and hobbled up the aisle. At once the congregants turned their heads, expressions of stupidity and incredulity on their faces. I surely looked like an imp to them, but I was a handsome imp and was finely dressed. Why should they be so surprised? Surely I was not the only amputee to become a groom!
As I proceeded up the aisle I took notice of the wedding party. Something was wrong. To one side of the priest, where there should have been a space to be filled by me, was another man, a thin specimen with a pointy nose, flappy ears, and a form that looked to be all bone and no body. I am sure it was the same mongrel that I saw in the street so long ago with the affections of my love, my love, in his possession. Nobody spoke, and I hobbled up further. As I mounted the stairs my love approached me and put her hands on my shoulders. She cried and shook her head, and told me that it was over, and that it was time for me to go now. It came as a weepy, cold whisper.
I clenched my teeth and my fists and spun, flinging a crutch at the head of this groom, this thief. It struck him in the throat, and he tumbled, head over heels, down the stairs. His head cracked against a marble statue of the Virgin Mary. Streams of blood traveled from his temples and stained his shirt. There were screams and shrieks, and the rest is a fog in my brain but I remember being tossed out the cathedral doors, into the road, squarely in a puddle of mud. Fearing for my own life, I crawled, my limbs twisted like tangled tree branches, to a carriage. I paid the driver with the ring I no longer needed and beckoned for him to take me away, quickly, to an abandoned cottage I knew of in the country. I promised him further riches for attending to my correspondence and keeping my location a secret. That no one has since pursued me I can only attribute to the benevolence of Lord Montour, who’s greatest wealth is his ownership of the authorities.
I soon learned, as information travels far and will always travel far, that the injury done to the groom had not been fatal, but had rendered him with the capacity of an idiot. My love married him in spite of this, and as far as I know she now spends her time tending to his soiled garments and wiping a perpetual stream of drool from his chin.
If you still think me a monster, think on this: I sunk into a corner and subjected my hands, the hands that turned the groom to an idiot and locked my love in a caretaker’s prison, to torments. I smashed one hand with a brick, and I placed the brick in bloodied digits and smacked it against the other repeatedly, leaving myself only a few working fingers. I have no working legs and no working feet, and the instruments that make me able to write are all but gone. This last letter to you has been near impossible to write, but I am a writer and I believe in the impossible.
And the infections in my body? They have only gotten worse. I am riddled with darkness now, barely able to speak or think or move, and I think that there is one last infection within me. There is a disease, a darkness and pestilence that only exists in my brain, a creature with tiny eyes and tiny teeth. It spends its time eating, chewing into my grey matter, consuming my thoughts and emotions. This is the final infection ,and I have no choice but to obsess on it. If need be, I will drive a spike into it. I will eject the demon by pushing from one ear to the other. I have gone too far to let the sickness become a victor. I will, when the time comes, be the final arbiter of my own demise.
Listen: Outside of my window I see a scene that I know is true. There are shadows in the darkness, apparitions of those wronged, and this is the scene that they have created. This is what they make me watch: They tell a story and it is true. It is true because I am writing it. In this scene there is a gathering: a woman who only wanted to be young again before she found an elixir of death; a banker would only wished to fatten his wallet and dispense youth; a fellow who was on his way home to tuck his children into bed and kiss his wife goodnight, only to be crushed by an animal; a boy who loved his dog and wanted no harm form anyone; a lovely girl, the loveliest of girls, who wanted nothing but a day to love and be loved in the company of friends, and a fool who received his reward for claiming a love that was not his to claim. These figures all stood, outside the window, with glowing yellow eyes. They stood and stand to this very moment, shoulder to shoulder, swaying from left to right, whispering to me. I cannot make out their meaning.
And I stand, looking into the hearth and fire, thinking that I am sick, oh so very sick. But I have lost so much! Have I not done enough? I have cut off a leg and a foot. I have decimated my hands, the very things that make me able to take my mind and put it onto a page. I know that my work is not done. No. There is more sickness in me, and I must warm the tools that will dig this sickness out and kill it. My head rages with infection. My bowls are on fire. The film on my eyes grows hot and melts. My skin is raw and red and cracked and bleeding. My throat is tight, as if filled with thorns, and my ears drip with poison. I am sick, sick, sick, but I know that my sickness is not imaginary, that what I say is true because I write it, because writing is the only thing that is, in fact, true.
Do not be deceived by looks or smiles, my friend. Care not for what people wear, or how they wink at you in person. Trust what they put in writing. It is only defense against the lies that might attack us, bruise us, and beat us into thinking that we are well.
I will write again soon. You are, as always, a faithful reader, and I, for all my affiliations, am much improved now.
About the Author: N.D. Coley (MA, English, University of Pittsburgh) is currently a college English composition instructor. His work has recently appeared in Shotgun Honey, Coffin Bell Journal Close 2 the Bone, Indiana Voice Journal, Corner Bar Magazine, Grotesque Quarterly, Jakob’s Horror Box, Massacre Magazine, Crack the Spine, and Funny In Five-Hundred. In his spare time, he laments the human condition, reads depressing literature, plays with his son and daughter, and irritates his wife. You can irritate him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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