By Daniel David Froid
Marko Duca/ shutterstock
You asked the other day about my recent discovery. At the time I demurred, but I have since thought better of it, and so now I write to tell you.
As you well know, I have a taste for local history, and indeed I fancy myself an amateur historian of our little region of the Midwest. And I have by now cast a wide enough social net that these friends and acquaintances, when at estate sales or in junk shops come across some little volume they think may be of interest to me, often pick it up and save it for me and sometimes even mail it directly to my home. In this way, along with my own habitual searching, I have accumulated quite a collection: works of history written by other amateurs, like myself, along with a few more professional volumes, photograph albums and scrapbooks, almanacs, miscellaneous documents by the dozens, and—these are my own personal favorites—diaries. I do so love diaries, no matter by whom, really. They are so tedious, so dreary, the authors’ observations on the weather or their daily routine, out of which idiosyncrasies and strange desires do sometimes stretch out little limbs and take the most tentative of steps. It was a friend of mine who recently sent to me the diaries of one Millicent Truller, who, I learned, served as housekeeper to the Morley family (and I trust they need no introduction). She worked as housekeeper for the Morleys and stayed on, after the senior Morleys died, as a sort of companion to Augusta Morley for the rest of their lives. Ms. Truller kept diaries her whole life long and, now that both women have passed out of this world and into the next, they serve as the most remarkable testaments of her life as well as of Ms. Morley’s. It is from these diaries that I have formed the following narrative. There is much to be said and written about the contents of her work, but I thought I would share some very intriguing material that she recorded toward the end of her life.
A certain painting in a distant hallway in her home—that is, Ms. Morley’s—would no doubt strike the eye and mind of whosoever came cross it. The hallway crawls with a paper of the most lurid fuchsia, on which flowers in turquoise and yellow seem to dance on their green stems. At the hall’s most distant end hangs the painting, covered by a curtain. One must assume it is still there along with the Morley family’s other things; the house stands, empty, with no present owner to disturb those things that lie within.
Among Ms. Truller’s duties in life was to dust the painting every now and then, and occasionally she did a little more than that.
Pull the heft of purple velvet aside and gaze upon the painting, which is tall as the wall and larger by far than life. Gaze upon it, and you will see three faces, each of them frozen in a rictus of astonishment. It is a portrait of a trio, all wearing fine clothes, a suit in emerald, a gown in deep black, and a robe in magenta. These subjects appear quite normal from the neck down. However, on their alarming faces are two eyes like caverns that lead to dark unknowns, eyes that stretch across most of their heads, shaped rather like pears in reverse, with tiny puckered mouths that are likewise wide and round, though much smaller. In fact these faces look somehow more like those of owls than of humans, though their features are humanoid enough.
Each of the figures holds an object, and if you would like you may step closer and inspect each object in turn.
The first object is an open book, its face tilted toward the viewer, and if you peer more closely still you may read what it says: When she was a young girl, Augusta Morley sold her soul to the devil…
The second is a sort of tablet, which from a distance glows, and from a closer vantage point its crystalline surface resolves into a moving picture. It shows the wizened face of a very old woman, as wizened as the old, old oak that forms her body. She begins to recite a tale, which may be known to some of you, and after she speaks for a time you may see other things: children at play, an innocent scene that soon darkens into a secret tragedy, if it is a tragedy (but it is, I think, a secret).
The third is a painting. It depicts a trio wearing very fine clothes who appear to be quite normal from the neck down but whose faces look somehow more like those of owls than of humans, though their features are humanoid enough. Yes, indeed, the smaller painting shows a sort of mirror image, in miniature, of the larger. And if you look with care, you may see that each of these figures holds an object: a book, a crystalline tablet, and a painting. In this smaller picture—by contrast to the portrait that houses it—the geometry appears slightly off. These figures stand in a room whose angles are askew. And if you peer very closely indeed you may try to see what the objects reveal but will probably not succeed. No, in order to read this book you will have to step closer, will have to enter the frame itself, as Ms. Truller records doing in her diary every now and then. The struggle at this stage is that one risks looking forward, that is, in the direction that the portrait’s subjects are looking. And if you are not careful, Ms. Truller writes, and you do allow your gaze to slide forward—so that you would face any new visitor who happened to stumble across this group of three, now four—you will feel your own face twisted into that familiar rictus, for what you will see will shock you indeed. So Ms. Truller knew, and she took care never to glance in that direction. Take care, shield your eyes, and take a glance at the book if you like—but we may come to that later. For once inside the painting you will find that you have more to divert your attention. You may take a step behind the subjects of the painting and encounter a large open hall, not unlike the one in her home where hangs the painting: the same sickening wallpaper dances on the walls, and the hall has the same dimensions. However, at the end of this hall is a passage that leads outdoors. Step through the door and onto the grass and toward the wall of hedges on the far side. There, near that border, is the oak tree.
Perhaps now is as good a time as any to fill in the rest of the story from the book inside the painting.
When she was a young girl, Augusta Morley sold her soul to the devil. At any rate, she tried to sell her soul to the devil. This intelligent and difficult child—as intellectually gifted as she was capricious and violent—had read of a certain theologian who, as a young man, thought to address the devil in a letter written in his own blood, offering his soul in exchange for untold wealth. He buried the letter under an oak tree and awaited the devil’s coming. Augusta found this an intriguing idea.
Indeed, the theologian’s tale inspired young Augusta to pen her own letter, which she revised to perfection before committing it to paper and blood. Long did she toil, having made the wound in her left palm, to drain herself of blood sufficient to write even a short address to the devil. But at last she succeeded and promptly buried the letter beneath an oak tree which, by chance, loomed over her parents’ home. Here is what she wrote:
Dear Mr. Satan,
I am writing to ask if you would give me magical powers. I want, firstly, to know all the mysteries of creation, and second, to be able to turn invisible, and third, to make people do what I want. If you would be so kind.
Ms. Augusta Morley
P.S. Please let me know if my soul is enough or if you would like something further. I can offer a brother or a sister. Or both. Thank you.
For several days she waited, much of that time spent before the bay window that looked out upon the tree. While she sat she dwelt on the letter and on the possibility of exchanging a sibling or both for diabolical gifts, the methods she would use, her prospects for further reward, and so on.
After seven days and seven nights throughout most of which she kept a constant watch, she felt a single tear slide down her cheek and recognized the failure of her trial. She felt her cheeks inflamed with hot failure. Satan had not and likely would not come. She said a low prayer anyway. She said, “I pledge my soul to you nonetheless, Mr. Satan.” She muttered further words for a time and left the room.
If someone both enterprising and energetic were to dig at the base of the tree, then they may well find Augusta’s letter, still intact. They would find buried much else besides, including bones of various creatures, some of which once were human, along with several other letters—it seems that Ms. Morley maintained, or tried to maintain, a number of epistolary relationships with beings who reside beyond this world. There is not much else to see there. So far as I can tell, that yard is quite barren.
It occurs to me that I neglected to tell you the contents of the book in the second painting—the reason why one might wish to step into the first painting to begin with. This book, you see, is Augusta’s own diary, the story of her long and wicked life. Perhaps it would not do to share its entire contents, which so far as I can tell are transcribed in full in Ms. Truller’s own diaries—ever the faithful servant, she—but I shall give you a sample.
I could think of every depraved and sacrilegious thing there is to do, and I could point out that the very word sacrilegious seems itself somehow profane: for while I am no fool and know my latin it seems obstinate of it not to be spelled sacreligious, does it not? But in the mean time while I resist orthographical tyranny I set to my profane labor, saying the lord’s prayer backward and so on and so forth, and while I work and while I do what it is I do I await the coming darkness, and here are the things the darkness wants: the open hand, the clouded mind, and the punctured soul—and only one of these can be seen, while the others must be taken on trust, and so: if you keep your mind obscure and your soul raw and wait with your hand held very still then and only then may you let the Infernal enter, a fact which is also a blessing, for long it took me to learn it, and believe me that this is the painful truth: the work I do does not matter whatsoever if I do not have those three things of which I have already written: and so when I was a very young girl and I betook myself bloody-handed to the oak with a missive in my hand with the devil as its addressee, and hell its destination, I did think he might listen but I was gravely mistaken, and when I do the things I do now, such as the backward prayer and the sacrifice &c., I do those things only for me and my own gratification, which is also enough and I daresay all I need, for all those other things I have long moved past and how long and far have I moved past them indeed, such as love: which is neither as easy nor as natural as one may wish to believe, no, it is high risk, and offers only diminishing returns, and it is also true that I have been always happy to forego the experience of sisterhood; I would have been happy then to sacrifice brother or sister or both, and if it is true that I pushed my brother down a well, and if it is true that I pushed my sister elsewhere for a time, well, it was easy for I did not love them, for did I not always tell myself that I could forego love, and believe me when I say that I am a silhouette set against the backdrop called a life, and I have longed and still long for knowledge that would smash the way a hammer can smash, and with my hammer I would smash to death each and every one of my enemies. How I mix metaphors when I speak of my desires! But what can I say, and I do as I please, as I have done my entire life long, and is there not after all quite a lot to show for a life well-lived as mine has been—the art I have made, which is very good indeed, and the book I am writing, which will itself be a marvelous contribution to the humane letters—well, let us say the inhumane letters, of which I am the foremost dottoressa—in which I reveal the secret of selling one’s soul to the devil, and of attaining those three certain qualities of which I have already written, and how it was only when I ceased debasing myself at the feet of gods and did my own work with my own self in mind that I at last discovered all the mysteries of creation…
I believe you have the general idea. Ms. Truller recorded this material, as I have said already, in her diaries. She writes of her travels into the painting quite often: it seems that it was one of her most frequent indulgences. But it was also such indulgence that killed her. She wrote in her last entry that she intended to go into the painting and turn around to see what it was that those in the painting saw: for, she knew, that was where Ms. Morley had scrawled all those mysteries she had so long desired, and where she had glimpsed the face of the Infernal—whatever It is—and it was, of course, those things that so astonished the subjects. That was her last entry; we must presume she died not long after.
You may think that we have reached the end of a rather pointless story. Pointless it may be, but most intriguing it must surely be as well. I tell you this curiosity, anyway, as a prelude to letting you know that I will soon take my own journey to the Morley house and see if the painting does indeed still stand. If it does, I will thrust aside the purple velvet curtain, meet its creatures in the eye and step into the painting to join them and, there, to see what there is to see.
I imagine that all this is no more than foolish fancy; I will let you know how it goes upon my return.
About the author: Daniel David Froid is a writer who lives in Arizona and has published fiction in Lightspeed, Weird Horror, Black Warrior Review, Post Road, and elsewhere. danielfroid.com.
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