Horror & Dark Fantasy




The Vault of Heaven

I am the eye with which the Universe
Beholds itself, and knows it is divine . . .

—Percy Bysshe Shelley, “The Hymn of Apollo”

It will be of little surprise to those who know me well that, as a boy, I was possessed by frequent night terrors. I do not like to speak of them now. It embarrasses me—even as it embarrassed my father once. I was a child: I saw as a child and I spoke as a child but my fears were not those of a child. There was a small window set into the north wall of my bedroom, and from this I would gaze out upon the constellations of lights that burst through the gloom: stories my father told me of heroes and monsters, there a dragon, there Hercules. To him these were figments, glimmering signs of a bygone age, but to me? I saw something more . . . a shape, a glimpse of something, an . . . extrapolation—a polished skull, grotesque and leering, a living death mask; it set a hook in my soul and with it, utter panic.

My friends have remarked upon the nervous disposition that has followed me into adulthood, but I do not comment. You may from this conclude that I am a private person. This is not entirely true; my discipline requires collaboration; I have adapted out of necessity—and the company of some I value very highly, indeed, if it can be got easily enough, and without those promises of further commitment so often pressed upon bachelors of my stature. But one thing my years at Cambridge taught me—pleasant though they were in most respects—was that those of an academic mind are quick to judge; and, having judged, quicker still to slaughter. It is a hobby of theirs—and mine too, if I am honest, or it was once—so.

It was that greatest of Stagirians, Aristotle, who popularized the notion of the five senses—or the five wits—which may strike one as odd since the Greeks had as many forms of divination—and what is that but another form of seeing?—as they had kinds of love. Why five then? It has always been clear that my nervous disposition is the result of some form of sensitivity, if you follow me. In fact, it has been one of my greatest assets: the ability to behold in my mind the shape of a thing as it was once, its true form, to sense—ha ha—its outlines.

I say this all as prelude, a ward against skepticism. In my school days a certain atheistic pragmatism was the fashion in these sorts of matters. A necessary inoculation, perhaps. I once visited an excavation of the bema at Korinthos. The site had hosted the tomb of an old man of little account, which had been looted for a few trinkets in the ancient city’s heyday. The locals were so gripped by the fear of the ghost—and this one was no king masked in gold, no gloried warrior!—that they rededicated the place as a temple to appease him.

I understand skepticism. Ghosts, glamours and curses for those who disturbed the dead: these were what my colleagues and I risked. In the golden hills of Hellas, excavation was a bare step up from grave robbing.

• • • •

In the summer of ’57, my pals had all landed plum positions in Ankara or Amphipolis, but several disastrous months at a site in the Peloponnese—this was little more than a set of caves discovered by a goatherd, to be clear—had taught me I had neither the complexion nor the stamina for excavation proper: in proper sunlight I curl up and wither like a slug. I could not embark upon a new career path. My father had made that perfectly clear, and docked my subsistence payout from the trust after a pretty heinous fight. My debts were starting to pile up. One of the symptoms of a nervous disposition is a tendency to drink; one of the symptoms of a Cambridge education is the tendency to drink to excess.

After Trinity College, the archaeological museum at Semos was an undeniable let-down—barely preferable to starvation. Semos was a harbour town in one of those rather forgettable islands that had once boasted some obscure trade—sponge-fishing in this case—that had stocked coffers in the early days before modern industry had changed the game. More recently, the town, with its idyllic views and glass-green waters, had been co-opted as a playground for the Athenian rich. They had funded—haphazardly, if not without enthusiasm—a number of cultural projects offering the usual diversions.

The museum boasted an assortment of cracked pithoi jars behind glass, nothing in the way of English signage, and a stinking-hot pair of shared offices at the back. Its bureaucracy was riddled by the usual plagues: questionable politics, intermittent corruption, and general ineptitude. The director had pieced together funding for the reconstruction of some hammered bronze fragments, and over-promised regarding the delivery date. The previous postholder had dropped out—a national I did not know, no publication history to speak of—and the clock was ticking. They didn’t want an Englishman, not really, and I didn’t want them: but I had—foolishly, I admit—jilted the college secretary, and so many of my applications to better positions had mysteriously gone astray. It was only a call from Cavanaugh that landed me the post in the first place, nepotism and blind luck being the two best friends an academic has.

The head of the administration, it turned out, went by the name Nikolaos Papadiliou, not the unctuous civil servant I had expected, but an impressive figure: tough and brawny, born of a generation of sponge-divers, no doubt. He laughed in short, measured bursts, and I found myself wondering how long he could hold his breath.

“Hey ho and welcome,” he cried with a meaty handclap. His English was flawlessly, pointedly posh. I’m a Cambridge man too, it seemed to say, I was once a master in your land as you shall never be in mine.

“Hullo,” I said stiffly, removing my fingers from his grasp.

“Come in, come in, do. A pleasure to have you here, and at such short notice. Found a place to dig in?”

For eighty a month I had secured a dilapidated two-story; all cracked red tiles and formerly white stucco, along with an ancient peasant woman who devised an endless string of poetic epithets for the broom, the basin, and the bed.

“I do hope to get properly acquainted.” His eyes were sharp with mockery. “One such as you, good pedigree, Cavanaugh told me, but a hard worker nonetheless. Not likely to disappoint, are you, not if you’re one of Cavanaugh’s bunch?”

“No, sir,” I replied, “I know what I’m doing.”

“Marvelous!” he said. “You shall understand the nature of our dilemma soon enough. And you shall solve it, ha! Cavanaugh’s prodigy. We shall see about that, won’t we?”

To the others he barked like a sea captain, but for me it was the familiar mix of silk and sulk of the Senior Common Room.

The staff stared at me, uncertain of what spell I had placed upon their commander.

The chill of isolation set in.

• • • •

 But the work, at least, was what I had expected.

I hadn’t caught the entire gist of the assignment from Cavanaugh—he had been pretty tight-lipped before my departure, and I wonder now if he hadn’t been knocking on with some of the same girls I had been after—but it didn’t seem as bad as I’d feared. I found at my desk a series of half-completed sketches of bronze fragments, most annotated heavily in a ragged hand that took some deciphering. My distinguished predecessor’s notes.

The find had been fairly recent. The rains last winter had eroded the soil, and a massive hole had opened up in the local necropolis. The villagers had known about the site for ages—their own cemetery was located next to it—but none bothered themselves until the collapse led to the discovery of a simple shaft grave. But while the archaeologists were preparing to enter, looters snuck in under the cover of darkness and took what they could lay hands on. When it became clear the hoard wasn’t gold, as they had anticipated, but rather hammered sheets of bronze, they fled. They thought the prize worthless. A disappointment. It was only in the morning when the archaeologists finally came to see for themselves that they discovered in the earth the remnants of what they believed to be a huge disc—perhaps a cauldron, perhaps the covering of a shield—glinting in hues of sea-green and gold.

Bronze work of that sort was my speciality, and I’d seen plenty of the like before. Griffins and bare-breasted sirens. Birds and oxen. Show me the slit of a hemline, and I can tell you if the figure was man, woman or child, social class, hand position even, on a good day. All in all, this kind of craftsmanship was shockingly predictable. The Greeks had a very definite sense of beauty: repetition, symmetry, proportion—what Plotinus called “formedness.” They valued it above all else, for to them it represented a link with the godhead: the perfection of form was the perfection of the universe itself. Time distorted but the figures themselves, in the purest sense, conformed.

My sensitivity was an often an asset in reconstructions of this sort. If I held a fragment before my eyes, my mind would travel the channels, imagining, filling in gaps, unspooling the thread of time to apprehend the thing as it had been once. And so I sat with the pieces—like ancient tesserae, elusive, perplexing—before me. They appeared to be from the Archaic period, bore some resemblances to the finds in Phidias’ workshop in Olympia, which meant they’d either traveled a surprising long way, or else someone had picked up his style. But there were Oriental influences too, more than I would have expected: lotuses, anthemia and tendrils, the hindquarters of a . . . lion, the head of a woman, a sphinx? The notes were confused. Or merely confusing. There were wild leaps I had difficulty following: a line my predecessor curled when I expected it to straighten, figures conjectured that seemed wildly implausible.

It is difficult to convey the sense of this experience, except that it was disorientating, and yet there was a sense of maddening logic. I felt a faint thrill running through me, though of wonder or terror I cannot say, only that it reminded me of the dreams I had as a child, those shapeless, chaotic images that left me drenched with sweat, wild-eyed. My predecessor’s imaginings were nonsense. Of course, they were nonsense. But they were that peculiar breed of nonsense that left an imprint upon the world, gave it depth: the barest glimpse of a whole, inarticulate, dimensionless, without form or substance—but with force—something—a prickle of sweat, a widened eye, a tightening in the stomach . . .

My immediate judgment was that he had either been a genius—or an utter crank.

No wonder they had sacked him.

• • • •

 Most of the staff wouldn’t speak to me. They were polite enough, to be sure, but I felt inscribed within a circle whose borders I could not detect and I could not pierce. I tried on several occasions, but the results were embarrassing. Nikolaos Papadiliou spoke to me from time to time, but I detected within his false bonhomie—”How are you getting on, old chap?”—an edge of contempt.

There were women, of course, the long-limbed daughters of sailors whose speech was so guttural I could not make heads or tails of it. The richer sort came in from time to time, but most of them kept to their villas or their yachts, and though a few cast their eye in my direction, they had the look of those married to powerful men. I didn’t have the stomach to play that particular game, not on foreign soil.

It is surprising, then, that I did not notice Pelagia earlier. She was a frequent visitor to the museum. My colleagues seemed to treat her with the same sort of aversion they showed me, despite her obviously local breeding. True, there was a plainness to her expression, her lips neither too rounded nor quite angular, her eyes verging on colourlessness yet not extraordinarily pale, her skin fine, taut, but lacking lustre, her other parts pleasing in proportion and symmetry without offering inspiration—architecturally satisfying; it made me want to place her in a store room somewhere.

My intentions were largely ignoble, and when she proved susceptible to my basic advances—she would speak to me, or allow me to speak to her in any case—things progressed along a fairly predictable line. She refused a private meeting for several weeks, but I persisted, retreated, showed attention when she visited and then rebuffed her when my presence became expected. After one such absence of several days, I made my play, told her I wanted to practice my Greek, or some such, perhaps I asked her about the history of the island and when she responded with enthusiasm, I pushed forward. We met at a taverna near the harbour where the lanterns of the boats reflected shards of light on the waves; all else was darkness around us, pure and impenetrable. She had dressed simply, no ornamentation, but her black hair was bound into a series of sleek, artfully rendered spirals—some effort at least had been taken for the occasion.

We spoke for some time upon the pretense I had offered, and her speech was mellifluous, her engagement genuine. There was a bright spot of colour high in her cheeks, and it charmed me, though I confess that I followed little of what she said. To hear her speak was enough to enchant; understanding would have only spoiled my mood, tempered her innocence with an edge of unfashionable intellect. I ignored her, mostly, and I think she liked it. Most women do. But as night progressed, she grew bolder. At one point, she seized upon my hand and said, for the first time, in English: “Are you sophisticated?

“What do you mean exactly?” I asked her, a little bit uncertain of the change in pace.

“Are you—charming?”

“Some have called me that,” I allowed. Her English was good, better than I would have expected.

“You look nervous.”

“Do I?” I realized I was. The night was warm, stifling. I was wearing a suit and dark jacket, but I could feel the wet splotches beneath my arms beginning to annex territory.

“You sweat.”

“A natural effect of the sun,” I muttered. And then, making an effort: “and—your beauty?”

“Was that charming?” Coquettish now.

“You must be the judge of that.”

There was silence for a moment, as she looked at me, at first contemplatively. Her adequately shaped eyebrows arched slightly. I was no sailor, but even I could sense a change in the weather.

“Do you have a woman at home? A wife, perhaps? A—how do you say—girlfriend? Are you engaged?”

Her eyes were lively. I thought she might be laughing at me, but I wasn’t entirely sure. I have always had a damnable time with the Greeks in situations like this.

I made a gambit. “An arranged marriage.”

“How barbaric.” Her face fell. Had I overplayed? “It must make you very sad.”

“Disconsolate.” I made an attempt to touch her, but she moved away.

Then: “Shall I seduce you? Would you like that? Would it make you happy?”

She smiled like a sphinx.

So did I.

• • • •

 We made love in my ramshackle two-story. The wind moaned hideously, and when a brief shower burst out of the sky, we could see rain dripping from the ceiling into pots she laid out to catch it. The bed, however, was warm. I found I was inspired to poetical epithets myself as it creaked dangerously beneath us. The springs thrummed like a lyre.

She was still plain, unsheathed, but her plainness I had begun to find beautiful. Galen, I’d read, had discovered the perfect proportion from finger to finger, and of all the fingers to the metacarpal, and the wrist, and of all these to the forearm, and of the forearm to the arm, and so on. I explored her dimensions.

“What are you doing?” she asked me.

“An experiment.”

“Stop it. I am not a—specimen.” Was that the word she used? “Not for you. Close your eyes now. Do it all by touch.”

But when I did as she asked, the darkness made a cradle for my brain, and all that spilled forth were images of her: angles and lines uncurling themselves, fixing new positions, shredding the patterns I had learned so well and making something new, provocative, startling. Her body was both hard and delicate, muscled, brightly burnished by the sun. She moved as languorously as oil, and I found myself thinking of something I had read once: “That is the spirit that Beauty must ever induce: wonderment and delicious trouble, longing and love and a trembling that is all delight.” I had never been moved by sentiment before, but now I began to shake violently, gripping her shoulder until I printed the shape of my finger upon her and she covered my hand in her own.

“There,” she said, “you have been seduced. How does it feel?”

“Wonderful,” I gasped, but there was a squirming, nasty sensation in the pit of my stomach. I cried out, and she kissed me, and then it was wonderful, and then it was awful again, “Sleep now,” she commanded, and just as instantly, the anguish left me. I curled up beside her, my forehead pressed against the sweet-smelling flesh of her shoulder. In the morning, she would be gone. Regret was an early riser, and it chased most women out the door before I had found my shirt. And so certainty returned. I was still myself, nothing had been lost, nothing abandoned.

• • • •

 But I was not at ease that night.

The old feeling of terror returned: I dreamed the roof of my house had turned to shoddy glass, and above the nigrescent dome of space enclosed me. Beyond it stood a crowd of darkening shades, stripped and fleshless, their bodies glistening with rot, studded with stars, a hideous empty eye and all else collapsed and sunken. And yet, despite their freakishness, there was something familiar about them, the barest hint of memory. My body was brittle upon awakening. I was afraid I must have cried out in my sleep. I was afraid she might have left me.

But when I turned, Pelagia was still there, undisturbed. She had thrust an arm carelessly over her face to shut out the light, and so the dawn’s glow fell unevenly upon all of her body except her eyes. I watched how it lit up the various sections of her, as if she was formed from the stone of different quarries. Had I ever looked at a woman in the morning sun? I could not recall. Rain plinked into the copper pots she had placed around the bedroom. It reminded me of the arrangement of pithoi in the cave I had excavated. Unnerved, I nudged her carefully.

“Darling.” I wondered what the Greek called their lovers.

She arose gradually, first her fingers fluttered, then her toes.

I was at a loss for what to say next. Ought I to be warm? Friendly? Consoling?

“I sleep late in the morning,” she said at last.

This felt like some form of sharing—important, a building block. It was intimate knowledge, different than what we had shared the night before. Previously I had avoided this, but I found myself curious, desirous, eager to share. That phrase—“I sleep late in the morning,” was infinitely precious. It demanded reciprocation. If I did not, she would be lost forever.

“Sometimes—” I started, “—I have night terrors.”

“It is not so strange,” she said. “The darkness holds much. It is—how do you say?—a cauldron? No—” she frowned, “—this is too much for cooking. More like—” she made a gesture with her hands. I had learned many words for the shapes of pots, but I could not make out what she meant. “It pours itself out.” She had a peculiar way of talking. The sort of poetry only foreigners can make out of the English language. I wanted more. I was suddenly thirsty for her words. How had I ignored her so blithely? How had I not hung on every word, engraved it upon the tablet of my soul?

“Tell me again what you told me last night.”

Pelagia was naked and gleaming. I was entranced by the movement of her hips as she leaned over to collect the spilling pots, the arc of her buttocks, the dimple at the small of her back as shallow as a kylix.

“I spoke to you of my father,” she told me. “I want you to meet him.” Her eyes were bright and innocent.

Nothing spoils so quickly as love.

• • • •

 Fathers and their daughters.

A man could write a book on the subject, and every page would be tragedy. Think of Oenomaus hearing his daughter’s suitor was bound to slay him. Think of Antigone and her pater, blind now, stumbling toward his own death, and her by him always, the cursed child of his incest. I had made a habit of avoiding fathers, my own whenever possible, and certainly those of any of my acquaintances.

But some duties cannot be easily ignored. I had taken her, and she had stayed—not to mention that I was still in the first flush of what might be called love. It is as Homer himself claimed: love is magic to make the sanest man go mad.

As it turned out, they shared a dwelling in the upper reaches of the harbour. Both the house and her father were ancient. He was dressed in a robe of some sort, wool perhaps, but his body shook beneath it anyway. He had the look of an ancient king; too long-lived, strength fled, empire in ruins, left alone in the wilderness to be fed by birds or pulled apart by animals.

The house smelled faintly of licorice, and dust hung in the air like incense. Pelagia poured coffee for us—stuff thick enough I could have painted with it had I wanted to. The old man did not touch his, seemed barely to recognize her.

“Papa,” she said in Greek, “this is the one I have told you about.”

“Hrrm?” he mumbled.

“He has come to the museum.”

A light came into him at that, almost physical, so profound were the effects. I could see clearly that he was mad, or something like it, perhaps only old. I had seen professors like this before. The shears of Atropos dull in the face of tenure.

“Please,” Pelagia said to me, pleading, “speak to him. Let him see what kind of a man you are.” This had the predictable effect of stalling my tongue completely.

She stared at the two of us, one mad, one mute, and finally said, “Tell him what you know of beauty.”

A harder question this, but some part of my Cambridge education sparked; I was used to being questioned in this way at least, inward examination being something avoided at all costs amongst those of privilege.

And so I spoke of beauty: I did not flatter, you understand, for I understood naturally she did not mean herself, but beauty beyond the particular. I spoke of its proportions, its limits—I spoke as Galen had spoken, I parroted Plato and Plotinus and all the others—I told them it represented a moral imperative. As I said these things, as I mimicked and recited, as if to an examiner, I felt something unspooling inside myself; the intimacy of his daughter had touched me profoundly. It was like a drug, and I began to speak more honestly than I knew.

What was beauty to me? I had never told another living soul. It was . . . too truthful. Too revealing. I would have been scorned at Cambridge for the callowness of what I said; it lacked art, sophistication, restraint. It was to him I spoke now. Beauty justified all else in my life—wealth, privilege, intellect, ambition, these were meaningless. I had seen it as a child—the hidden face of humanity, all things crawling toward the grave—and yet something might be salvaged. Perfection was a ward, a salve, a shield.

But the old man turned away from me, crying, “No!”—and then again, “no! This is not beauty. Beauty is strangeness. It is not form but—” I saw a wild light in his eyes. He clutched at my hand, and pulled me along behind him with a hectic strength. This madness—I did not understand it—unless—had our tryst been discovered? Had Pelagia given me up? After all, I had deflowered her with all the vigour and abruptness of a set of garden shears. Perhaps, I thought, he intended to slay me—or worse, he would force me to marry. I tried to shake him free, but his nails, thick and yellow as wax, had dug into my flesh.

The room beyond was badly lit, a hermit’s cave, and about it were cast thousands of sketches. I recognized some of them: a bronze statue of Hera, imperious, sharp-breasted, with her faced caved in as if from a heavy blow; another recovered from a shipwreck with frilled, green growths pocking the skin; a third disfigured, attenuated by the heat of some vast conflagration. I knew these objects. We all knew them. They represented the pinnacle of that ancient civilization, their greatest achievements. All of them broken, bruised, disfigured.

And all of them . . . beautiful, taunting and inexplicable. It took my breath away. When the old man released his grip, I did not run. I could not. This was not a punishment, as I had feared, but something else: an education. I began to study the sketches more closely, fear dispelled, caught up only in the excitement of my intellect.

“Beauty is strangeness,” he had said, and, yes, I believed him. Strangeness. That was what I saw. I traced the patterns: sketches of shards, reconstructions, but mad things filled with fanciful extensions, boneless limbs that stretched and circled, perverse bodies. Like nothing I had ever seen—and yet—like all that I had ever seen. I recognized the crow-footed hand making its way sideways across the skin of the page. Sometimes it was huddled. Other times it broke and ran, sprawled, stuttered, stilled.

I turned to the old man. Those bleak, staring eyes, I knew what they had seen: winged women and sphinxes, the curve of a falling blade, blood on the tiles, the pillars cracked, the colonnades fallen, and everywhere that sickening tension, the shadow falling between those vivid, discordant lines. “I know you,” I tried to tell him, but that was not what I meant: I meant, I know what you have seen, I know what you have tried to show me, but it is broken, it is wrong . . .

“Good,” he said in his throaty Greek. “I know you too.” And it was clear to me that was not what he meant either: he meant, I know you are broken, I know you search for beauty but you cannot hold it in your hands for too long without destroying it, you are an idealist and you are wrecked. “It will be easier this way.”

“What shall?” I demanded.

“You have been set a task of reconstruction?” he asked me. I scowled: nothing irks the old guard so much as their apparent heirs. But he waved his hand to dispel my doubts. “Of course, you have. An Englishman, no less! They would not choose another Greek, could not, who would touch the thing?”

“I am not so credulous as you would have me.”

“Yes! Credulous—this is the very nature of the thing, belief.” He plucked a page from the table. “What you see here—the ancient ones, theoi, masters of the market, the feast and the banquet, the altar and the tomb; they are the first forms; the unmoved movers.”

“Figments,” I told him. “Desire and terror pressed into the image of man—an abstraction of the chaotic, forced to serve the whim of philosophers and priests.”

“And yet,” he said, staring at me very closely.

I flinched. “And yet.”

“They were beautiful once, but age has wrecked them. And there is something—here.” He tapped at a hastily scrawled image, the barest of outlines of a robed figure, two unseeing eyes, over-large. They stared out of the centre of the head, terrible. Hungry. “The perfection of art was the perfection of these figures. But they have been bent out of shape: the ocean devours the smoothness of their flesh, the grave eats its protector, fires rage and beauty sloughs off its skin. These . . . representations, they are as the hand is to the arm, the finger to the knuckle. The canker spreads, and the rot has set in unto the very root of the form. The pattern is corruptible!”

“I don’t know what you mean,” I tried to tell him, but I could not wrench my eyes from the paper he held. I remembered the fragments of bronze, and the patterns at which they hinted. Something beautiful or something monstrous. I knew what it should have been: a maiden straight-backed and glorious, the tilt of her chin, an imperious eye . . . but that was not how I saw it. I saw as he saw it, filtered through shadow and strangeness. It was as if my soul was at war with my intellect, and yet I knew if I had ever seen truly, it was in that moment.

“You know,” he said, “I see that you know.”

“It is a simply drawing,” I insisted, “nothing more.”

“It is truth.”

“That is not how the artist shaped it. You know that, you must know that.”

“The artist is dead! It is how the figure goes now,” he snapped. “You have seen the stars, yes? Their figures? Yes, of course you have—the theoi, they watch us from the vault of heaven, their bodies twisted and deformed by what we have done to them. We have consigned them to rot and ruin. They cannot free themselves from those shapes we have created for them, for they are mould and wax both, the stone and the chisel!”

“You are too far gone,” I told him, turning away. “This is madness, what would you have me do?”

“They wish to be seen as they are. Let the mould be broken, let the stone turn to dust!”

“I cannot,” I cried. “Papadiliou will not have it!”

“You see as no one else does!” The old man’s grin was mesmerizing. I felt myself coming under his power. The room was warm and dusty, the air dense, unbreathable. The figures around me seemed to shift and move as if the pages were stirred by some unknown breath, and, indeed, in that moment it felt the air began to chill as it did when a vast cloud interposed itself between the sun and the earth.

“It is—” but I could not say more. I cast my eyes wildly about the walls, but it was as if they had begun to recede, very slowly, away from me. The space curved: suddenly, they were not drawings, for no drawing could encompass so much space, no drawing could impose form upon such vastness, the chaos of heaven, and set among them in gossamer threads of light . . . what I could not say . . .

. . . except I saw the charnel grin of a woman, cut-out from the darkness, beautiful, perhaps the most beautiful woman I had ever seen, but already her back had begun to stoop, her thighs run to ragged skin hanging, as a curtain does, upon a shuddering frame. From finger to knuckle, from wrist to elbow, she was perfect; but already her limbs were lengthening, her eyes wandering like errant planets, one grown large and the other squinted, then both empty as if someone had prised them loose from her skull . . .

“I cannot follow you!” I cried out, tearing at the papers he had drawn up, shredding them into a thousand irreconcilable pieces. And then it was as if the madness had passed. My lungs heaved, my pulse pounded, but the world was as I knew it to be: clothed in an impenetrable skin, flat, lacking depth, entirely knowable.

“Not even for my daughter?” he begged, and at this I felt a strange tugging in my chest. I remembered Pelagia’s scent, her curves, the fine grain of her hair. And more than that. I recalled how it had felt to know that she lay besides me, that she had shared my bed and chosen to stay. But already my memory of her was beginning to tarnish: the scent of her skin was as any woman’s, the curve of her buttocks fine, perhaps, but no finer than a thousand other girls.

“I will not be so easily corrupted.”

When he learned I was unmovable, he began to rock back and forth, biting at his knuckles. “You must, you must,” he whimpered. “Please. Don’t you understand? It is we who are corruptible—we should never have given them form!” And then quieter, pleading: “They will have me. They have promised it: They shall set me amongst their ranks forever!

It is ever thus with the visionaries of our field: repudiation is never met with anything but hysteria.

I left the house as soon as I could.

• • • •

 I did not see Pelagia again, but, I confess, I did not seek her out either. I had never intended a long-term engagement, and I suspect she understood this in time. Most women sort it out for themselves sooner or later.

And by this time the local paper had printed a picture of my reconstruction. There was nothing revolutionary there, any of Cavanaugh’s lot could have managed easily enough. The object had been a shield, I decided, not some votive offering as my predecessor had claimed. The decorations depicted straight-limbed soldiers, the glorious youths who would fall in battle, each of them a perfect figure of manliness and virility. I felt confident that the excavations of the remaining skeletons would bear that out in good time. Or perhaps I would be proven wrong—it did not matter so long as I had published; no scholarly opinion is eternal.

In the time that followed I was kept busy with a series of engagements designed to properly fleece the museum’s patrons. It was at one such event that Papadiliou came upon me, disarmed by wine and uncharacteristically convivial. He clapped me on the shoulder, bellowing, “Well done, old chap, that’s that then. Back to England, is it?” His hand was as heavy and unwanted as some massive limpet.

“Of course,” I told him frostily. Now that my research was winding down, I had decided to accept an invitation to lecture at the Traveller’s Club in London. This was only a minor find, but I had set upon it enough hyperbolic polish to impress those back home.

But as Papadiliou began to drift off, a sudden curiosity seized hold of me. “Wait!” I said, “My predecessor did not wish to join us? Some of the credit, surely, still belongs to him?”

“He died last week.” Papadiliou said, his eyes curiously misty, the Cambridge silk slipping away into something gruffer and more natural, as if he was moved by genuine emotion. “He was a great man. But his mind dulled in time, we could not keep him. We could not sponsor his . . . theories.”

“I did not know,” I told him.

“You would not,” he continued. “But you may visit his grave, if you like. They buried him in the local cemetery.”

But, of course, I never did.

And yet, despite my success abroad, when I returned home at last, I felt a profound weariness. The fashions had changed. London was abuzz with excitement. The Russians had launched an orb of polished metal into the heavens—Sputnik, they called it, the traveller. No longer did men of intelligence look to the earth, my father told me, no longer would they scrabble in the dirt after the lost legacy of those races that had come before and perished; it was to the heavens we must turn, to the future . . .

In his eyes, I detected the familiar glint of fanaticism.

Perhaps my father was right. Perhaps I have failed to navigate the currents of progress, and, as a consequence, my contributions will be meager. My lecture was sparsely attended, conflicting as it did with a talk given by one of my colleagues at Trinity—a fellow called Hawking. But when I look into the night sky, I do not see what they see: an unspoiled frontier, so long denied to us, now graspable, conquerable. The idea of a lone figure, edged in starlight but untethered, surrounded by darkness, terrifies where it should inspire. I can well imagine the terror in his aspect, a twistedness in his face, as if his jaw has come unhinged in some eternal howl. I remember too well the old man’s words—the cosmos seem to me a haunted place, a graveyard.

In any case, another degree would not suit me at this point. One cannot spend one’s time contemplating past failures; the road forks, a path is pursued or not, but always we must shuffle along, letting fall what will by the way. We should not bear so much upon our shoulders. And I am reasonably happy: I am awaiting news of a book contract, the success of which, Cavanaugh assure me, ought to be expected—and there is a young woman of unusual good looks whom I have noticed frequents the corner of the quadrangle directly beneath my window. There are some advantages in keeping one’s gaze close to the earth.

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Helen Marshall

Helen Marshall

Helen Marshall is a Lecturer of Creative Writing and Publishing at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, England. Her first collection of fiction, Hair Side, Flesh Side, won the Sydney J Bounds Award in 2013, and Gifts for the One Who Comes After, her second collection, won the World Fantasy Award and the Shirley Jackson Award in 2015. She is currently editing The Year’s Best Weird Fiction to be released in 2017, and her debut novel Everything that is Born will be published by Random House Canada in 2018.